Starship: a first attempt at orbital liftoff next month?

Eric Bottlaender

Space specialist

June 17, 2022 at 6:30 p.m.


Starship SN24 prototype to the production site © SpaceX

Starship SN24 en route to the launch site, late May. It has since returned to receive its engines © SpaceX

With the agreement (subject to conditions) of the American administration to carry out take-offs from Starship and SuperHeavy from the Boca Chica site in Texas, on-site operations are accelerating. Elon Musk is already announcing an attempt next month… But everything will depend on the next full-scale tests.

Starship has been on the ground for over a year!

Small milestone

The beginning of the year was calm, with the last tests of the previous generation of Starship (prototype SN20) and SuperHeavy (prototype BN4), several times assembled, but which never had the honor of flying. But this is not representative of the technical advances of Elon Musk’s firm. In the gigantic hangars of Boca Chica, SpaceX was already preparing the improvements for the new generation of Raptor V2 engine as well as the dozens of modifications made to its future orbital vehicle and its booster. Nevertheless, since May, the launch site has resumed its tests, gradually more complex, faster, more ambitious.

First, the SuperHeavy BN7 prototype underwent, between May 7 and May 15, two successful tests to fill its tanks before returning to the production site. A month later, its 33 engines (!) are in place and just waiting to roar. It should be installed in the days or weeks to come on the firing table of the orbital site, for a first engine ignition test which promises to be exciting.

Similarly, between May 27 and June 8, the Starship SN24 prototype also underwent several tests under pressure and at cryogenic temperatures. During the first of the three, an incident cost him a few dozen thermal tiles and caused a delay in repairs… But everything was back to normal, and he too returned to the production site to receive his six engines.

Starship Starbase launch site © SpaceX

The “starbase” finally ready to see some action again? © SpaceX

They signed!

Earlier this week, SpaceX received the long-awaited agreement from the powerful FAA (Federal Aviation Administration, which manages and regulates air transport in all its forms) to carry out orbital and suborbital flights from its Texas site. But be careful, you will first have to fill in a list of 75 criteria relating to the environment around the site: water protection, management of lights, waste, nature reserve status, etc. If none of the points seem particularly blocking, it should be borne in mind that the FAA will take care to verify that the conditions of its operating authorization are met before letting SpaceX proceed with an orbital flight. Could this request be on the table by next month?

Elon Musk has already said on Twitter that Starship and SuperHeavy would be ready in July. This June 14, the founder of SpaceX completed an inspection of the production site, which he obviously left with new enthusiasm, and is already announcing one attempt per month from August. These assertions do not commit to much, given that the same Elon Musk said he was aiming for an orbital liftoff ” in a few weeks ”… At the beginning of the summer of 2021.

Nevertheless, there is no denying the obvious progress of the teams over the past few months, whether to produce Starship and SuperHeavy, or to prepare for the intense test campaigns. The launch tower and its carrying arms, capable of moving boosters or Starships, is a good example. The still unclear concept in 2021 was quickly implemented and has been in place since the end of winter.

The last Starship assembly seen here used older versions (booster BN4 and Starship SN20) © SpaceX

The lines are moving, from Texas to Florida

In addition to assembling the prototypes dedicated to orbital flight (SN24 and BN7 are the obvious candidates), there will still be many preparations, fictitious countdowns, firing tests before the gigantic rocket can rise from its launch pad… And perhaps even, a few minutes later, try to return to land there.

SpaceX isn’t there yet, but the deadline is fast approaching. A sign that the Starship adventure is preparing to shift into high gear, the following prototypes are already being assembled. The company’s teams have started setting up a second “spacecraft factory” in Florida and adapting the LC-39A launch site at the Kennedy Space Center to launch their giant launcher there. Will he roar next month?

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