SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell said the company now expects Starbase to be ready for Starship’s first orbital launch attempt as soon as June or July, pushing the timeline back a month. or two.
To accomplish this feat, SpaceX will more or less have to pass a wide range of difficult and unproven tests and pass a series of exhaustive bureaucratic reviews, greatly increasing the odds that Starship’s orbital launch will actually be closer to 3-6 months. . Although SpaceX could technically perform a miracle or even attempt to launch hardware that has only been partially tested, even the most optimistic hypothetical scenarios still hinge on things largely beyond the company’s control.
Is the FAA or not the FAA?
Both revolve around the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which — in SpaceX’s case — is responsible for conducting a “programmatic environmental assessment” (PEA) of Starship orbital launches from Boca Chica, Texas. and issue a launch license for the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. In some ways, both tasks are unprecedented, but the bureaucratic processes involved are still largely the same that SpaceX has successfully navigated over the past two decades.
First, the FAA environmental review. Until very recently, the fate of Starbase’s PEA was almost entirely indeterminable and could have taken many paths – most of which would not favor SpaceX. However, just days ago and about a week after the FAA’s last one- to two-month PEA delay announcement, the agency updated an online dashboard to show that the fourth of five main PEA processes had been completed. The most significant part of the update is the implication that SpaceX and the FAA have now completed nearly every aspect of the PEA that requires cooperation with other federal agencies and local stakeholders.
Only one more cooperative process – ensuring compliance with “Section 4(f)” – remains to be completed. Without going into specifics, there’s no compelling evidence to suggest this particular milestone will be a hurdle, though SpaceX will have to compromise on certain aspects of Starbase operations to complete it. Once Section 4(f) is behind them, the only thing standing between the FAA and SpaceX and a final PEA is the completion and approval of all relevant documents. In other words, for the first time ever, the FAA’s targeted completion date — currently May 31, 2022 — might actually be achievable.
Yet, as the FAA itself likes to repeatedly point out, “completion of the PEA will not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license – SpaceX’s application must also meet FAA safety, risk, and financial accountability requirements.” Even if the PEA is perfect, SpaceX still needs to get an FAA launch license for the largest and most powerful rocket in history. It’s unclear if SpaceX and the FAA have already begun this tedious back-and-forth or if tedious fine print is preventing it from starting before an environmental review is in place. Without knowing more, the launch license can take from a few days to several months.
A series of tubes
Without the FAA’s launch license and environmental approval, no SpaceX Starship construction can legally launch from Starbase. On the other side of the coin, however, it’s just as true that FAA approval signs are worth about as much as the paper they’re written on without a rocket ready to launch. In a perfect world, SpaceX would have a fully qualified Starship and Super Heavy booster stacked and sitting at the Starbase orbital launch site when the FAA finally gives the go-ahead. However, it is not enough what is the reality of SpaceX today.
The Starship’s first orbital flight will be with Raptor 2 engines, as they are much more efficient and reliable. 230 ton or ~500k lb thrust at sea level.
We’ll have 39 airworthy engines built by next month and then another month to integrate, so hopefully May for an orbital flight test.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 21, 2022
SpaceX has made significant progress over the past month and a half, but contrary to CEO Elon Musk’s hopes as of March 21, the company will definitely not be ready to attempt an orbital launch by the end of May. Still, Shotwell’s estimate of “June or July” may not be completely out of reach. Since Musk’s tweet, SpaceX has completed assembly of Super Heavy Booster 7, taxied the rocket to the launch site on March 31, and conducted several major tests in early April. However, during the last test, an apparent operator error significantly damaged a large part installed inside the booster, forcing SpaceX to return Super Heavy B7 to the Starbase construction site. After two and a half weeks of repairs, Booster 7 returned to the launch site on May 6 and performed another “cryoproof” test, apparently verifying that these quick fixes did the job.
If Booster 7 hadn’t required repairs, it’s not impossible (but still difficult) to imagine that SpaceX could have had a Super Heavy booster ready for launch by the end of May. Still, the static fire tests that Booster 7 has to perform are almost entirely unprecedented and could take months. To date, SpaceX has never fired up more than six Raptors at once on a prototype spacecraft, while Super Heavy will likely need to run multiple tests of 33 engines before it can be safely considered ready for launch. flight. Worse still, there’s no guarantee that SpaceX actually wants to fly Booster 7 after the damage it suffered. If Booster 8 carries the torch instead, Starship’s orbital launch debut could easily slip into late Q3 or Q4 2022.
Meanwhile, Super Heavy is only half the rocket ship. When Musk tweeted his estimate “hopefully in May,” SpaceX was a long way from completing the spacecraft – Ship 24 – that would have been assigned to the early orbital launch. However, SpaceX has finally ramped up assembly of Ship 24 over the past few weeks and finally finished stacking the upgraded ship on May 8. There’s still a lot of work to really finish Ship 24, but SpaceX should be ready to send it to a test bed within a week or two. Even though the tests that Ship 24 will have to perform have already been done by Ship 20, making its progression less risky than that of Booster 7, Ship 24 will debut with a number of major design changes and will likely require at least two months of testing to achieve a basic level of flight readiness.
Last but not least, there is the question of the Orbital Launch Site (OLS) itself. Is the launch mount ready to survive a full Super Heavy static fire? Is the pad’s tank farm ready to fill Starship and Super Heavy with several thousand tons of flammable and explosive cryogenic propellant? If that’s an objective of the test flight, is the launch tower ready for a Super Heavy booster to attempt to land in its arms? Although there are reasons to believe that the answer to some of these questions is “yes”, many uncertainties remain and much work is still incomplete.
Ultimately, Shotwell’s June goal is almost certainly unachievable. Late July, however, could be within the realm of possibility, but only in the unlikely event that all of the Booster 7 and Ship 24 tests are completed near-perfectly and without further ado. For the pragmatic reader, August or September is a safer bet. Fortunately, at least one thing is certain: the activity at Starbase is about to get a whole lot more exciting.