SpaceX is expecting to see its gigantic Starship rocket take off on its first flight very soon. CEO Elon Musk revealed that the company is gearing up to attempt the first-ever orbital test flight of the two-stage reusable system as early as late October, but with a launch in November being more “likely.”
Musk shared the update through Twitter, responding to a thread about a recent test of Booster 7's engines. “We will have two boosters & ships ready for orbital flight by then, with full stack production at roughly one every two months,” Musk wrote on Twitter on Wednesday.
The SpaceX system, consisting of the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy booster, is a fully reusable, super heavy-lift launch vehicle designed to go to Earth orbit, the Moon, and possibly even further destinations like Mars. As per a contract with NASA, SpaceX needs to prove that Starship can land humans on the Moon by late 2025 as part of the space agency’s Artemis 3 mission.
The orbital test flight involves the launch of a fully stacked Starship rocket to space, where it will enter Earth’s orbit, perform less than a full orbit around Earth, and reenter Earth’s atmosphere. The upper stage will splash down some 62 miles (100 km) off the northwest coast of Kauai, Hawaii, while the Super Heavy Booster will splash down in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s entirely possible that the booster may attempt an assisted vertical landing at the launch site, but that’s not yet confirmed.
Starship prototype 24 is currently undergoing tests at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Both the booster and the spacecraft are designed to be fully reusable and powered by SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engines (33 for the booster and six for the spacecraft). The company recently completed a seven-engine static fire test at Starbase, but the prototype was later rolled back to the Starship factory for “robustness upgrades ahead of flight,” SpaceX wrote on Twitter.
It wasn’t clear what those upgrades may be, especially after the company declared the engine test a success. But Musk later clarified on Twitter: “Our focus is on reliability upgrades for flight on Booster 7 and completing Booster 9, which has many design changes, especially for full engine RUD isolation.” By “RUD isolation,” Musk is referring to “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” an industry in-joke referring to the unintended destruction of a device or vehicle.
Hopefully, Elon isn’t planning to destroy anything anytime soon. Indeed, SpaceX had previously taken a more aggressive developmental approach to Starship, firing up one prototype after the other in a series of high-altitude tests that often ended in spectacular explosions. On the other hand, the company has seemingly made progress in developing its massive rocket, even at the price of a few fallen prototypes. In May, SpaceX unveiled its latest Starship prototype, showing promise that the company may soon be ready to test its orbital flight capabilities.
But Musk has been overly optimistic about Starship timelines in the past. In June, Musk declared that Starship would be ready for its first orbital flight in July shortly after getting the go-ahead from the Federal Aviation Administration for the site expansion in Boca Chica. A potential launch in October or November means SpaceX has fulfilled an outstanding list of regulatory requirements, which has yet to be confirmed.
It’s not clear whether the latest timeline proposed by Musk is yet another overly-optimistic declaration, or if Starship may actually be ready to take off before the end of 2022. Either way, time is ticking for the massive rocket to fly.