CEO Elon Musk says it’s “quite likely” that SpaceX will be ready to try and launch its first orbital spacecraft in November 2022, possibly as late as October. But there are still big hurdles.
Adding welcome insight into SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship rocket program, Musk took to Twitter on September 21 to provide more specific insight into the company’s next steps toward a critical orbital launch for the first time. On September 19, the CEO revealed that SpaceX will bring the booster (B7) spacecraft currently assigned to this debut to the factory for mysterious “force upgrades” — an unexpected move right after a seemingly successful and record-breaking static fire test.
Two days later, Musk indicated that these upgrades may include strengthening the propulsion section of the Super Heavy Booster 7 to ensure it can survive Raptor engine failures. With 33 Raptor V2s powering them and plenty of evidence that these Raptors are far from complete reliability, the concern is understandable, even if the response is slightly different than the SpaceX standard.
Before preparations for the Starship’s first orbital launch began, SpaceX sped up by developing a Starship like it wanted To destroy as many missiles as possible – which I did to some extent. Instead of spending 6-12 months fiddling with the same few prototypes without attempting a single launch, SpaceX has taken out Starships and aggressively tested and tested articles. A few times, SpaceX squeezed quite a bit and made avoidable mistakes, but most of the failures produced large amounts of data that was then used to improve future vehicles.
The Holy Grail of this project was the high-altitude spacecraft flight testing, which saw SpaceX finish, test and launch five times in six months, culminating in the first fully successful high-altitude vehicle launch and landing in May 2021.
In comparison, preparations for SpaceX’s orbital flight test were virtually unknown. While a great deal of progress has been made in the 16 months since the launch and successful landing of SN15, it’s clear that SpaceX has decided against Take great risks. After spending more than six months slowly finishing and testing the Super Heavy Booster 4 and Starship 20, the first orbital-class pair, SpaceX never attempted a single steady fire of Booster 4 and unceremoniously retired both prototypes without attempting to fly either.
Without information from Musk or SpaceX, we may never know why SpaceX has discontinued the B4 and S20, or why the company appears to have revised its development approach to be more conservative after clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of fast-moving and high-risk. Winning a $3 billion contract that puts the Starship front and center in NASA’s attempt to return astronauts to the Moon likely encouraged a more cautious approach. SpaceX won this contract in April 2021.
Even in its more cautious third phase, Starship development is still extraordinarily hardware-rich, moving quickly and exposing many problems on the ground rather than learning from flight tests. But this does not change the fact that the third phase of spacecraft development (H2 2021 – today) is proceeding more carefully than the first (Q4 2018 to Q4 2019) and the second (Q1 2020 – Q2 2021).
However, it looks like SpaceX is finally getting close to the first orbital launch of the Starship. According to Musk, the company may be ready for its first launch attempt as early as late October, but the November attempt is “highly likely.” He believes that SpaceX will have a pair of orbital-class spacecraft and superheavy boosters (B7/S24; B8/S25) “ready for orbital flight by then,” allowing for a quick return to flight after the first attempt. Musk is also excited about Super Heavy Booster 9, which “Many design changes“And the thrust section that will isolate all 33 of the aircraft of prey from each other — critical to preventing one engine failure from damaging the others.
Meanwhile, as Musk predicted, the Super Heavy Booster 8 took to the launch pad on September 19 and is likely to be tested in the near future while the Booster 7 is upgraded again at the factory.
As encouraging as this may be, history has shown that reality – particularly when it comes to a Starship’s orbital launch – can be very different from the pictures painted by Elon Musk. In September 2021, for example, expect musk That SpaceX will conduct its first static superheavy fire at Starbase’s orbital launch pad later that month. In fact, this crucial test occurred 11 months later (August 9, 2022) and used an entirely different booster.
That means a lot of progress has been made in the past few months, but SpaceX has a great deal of work left, almost all of which is located in uncharted terrain. Starship 24, which completed its first six-engine static fire earlier this month, is currently undergoing strange modifications that seem to suggest that the upper stage does not live up to SpaceX’s expectations. It is unclear whether additional tests are needed.
Super Heavy B7 returns to the factory for additional work after a successful static fire of the Seven Raptor. Once back on the pillow, the sequence isn’t clear, but SpaceX will need to complete its first full Super Heavy wetsuit rehearsal (loading the entire booster with thousands of tons of combustible fuel) And the First fixed fire full 33 Raptor. It remains to be seen whether SpaceX will continue its conservative approach (i.e. test drive one, three and seven over six weeks) or jump straight from seven to 33 drives.
It is also unclear where Ship 24 fits into that picture. SpaceX will eventually (or should) need to do a full rehearsal of the fully-stacked spacecraft and may even want to try out a 33-engine static fire using that two-stage, fully-fueled craft to really test the rocket in the same conditions it will launch under. Will SpaceX fully assemble the B7 and S24 once the booster is back on board, jeopardizing the spacecraft’s ability to fly through the most dangerous Super Heavy tests yet?
SpaceX’s final year of activity suggests that the company will choose caution and conduct wet-clothes drills and static fires for 33 engines before and after stacking, potentially doubling the amount of testing required. One or more tests will also be required if SpaceX decides to build up to 33 incremental engines, which is the approach all Booster 7 activities so far indicate SpaceX will take.
Either way, it will be a huge challenge for SpaceX to have a fully stacked spacecraft ready for launch by End November. if Which Big problems arise during Which Among the many unprecedented tests outlined above, Musk’s predictable schedule will likely become impossible. As a wildcard, the FAA has yet to issue a license or pilot permit for SpaceX to launch the orbital spacecraft, both contingent on dozens of “dilutions.”
That doesn’t mean it’s impossible for an orbiting spacecraft launch attempt to happen in November. But given the many issues Booster 7 and Ship 24 encountered during much simpler tests, it’s becoming increasingly implausible that SpaceX will be ready to launch the pair before the end of 2022. Stay tuned.
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