Pauline Acaline for Supercluster
Starship's much-anticipated orbital flight test could happen as soon as late February or early March according to Elon Musk.
The mission is a critical milestone for both the company’s Mars ambitions and for their partner NASA, who needs Starship to finally return its astronauts to the moon.
The Superheavy booster dubbed B7 — scheduled for the inaugural flight attempt — was rolled out of the Starship’s production facility to the orbital launch pad this week, located just 4 kilometers away. The booster was lifted onto the launch mount. The next day, Starship prototype Ship 24 was mated with Booster 7, completing the full stack configuration of the Starship Launch System.
Together standing 120 meters (394 feet) tall, Starship Super Heavy is the largest and the most powerful launch system in development.
The fully stacked Starship Super Heavy is expected to undergo Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) tests soon, during which the launch vehicle will be loaded with propellants, simulating all the steps needed for a launch without the actual ignition. Final tests will include a static fire of all 33 Raptor engines which will produce 5 times the thrust of the Falcon Heavy, and twice that of NASA’s Space Launch System, currently the world’s most powerful rocket.
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According to an official FCC document, Starship’s Orbital test flight will launch from Starbase Launch Facility in Texas. All 33 engines onboard the Superheavy booster will burn for about 170 seconds before separating from the Starship and maneuvering to orient and perform a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico, just 32 kilometers (20 miles) from the shore of Texas. Raptor engines on the Starship will continue to burn until the spacecraft reaches orbit, after which it’ll perform a targeted water landing approximately 100 kilometers (62 miles) off the northwest coast of the Hawaiian Island of Kauai.
This much-anticipated mission has been delayed due to multiple complications, ranging from the reliability of the first iteration of the Raptor engines to operational issues with multiple Starship & Superheavy systems, and the launch pad itself. The company has done away with the cowboy style of build and test during the initial phase of development which included a higher tolerance of risk and failure and is proceeding more carefully and deliberately. Elon Musk said in a tweet that a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly (RUD, aka, an explosion) at this stage of testing would set progress back by around 6 months.
In development for over 5 years, SpaceX is continuously testing, fixing, and retesting launch vehicles and the launch pad itself in the remote Texan village of Boca Chica. Over the years, this town has witnessed a rapid pace of technological developments including numerous high-altitude test flights of Starship without its Super Heavy booster.
Prototypes SN8, SN9, Ship 10, and Ship 15 were launched by 3 Raptor sea-level engines to an altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) before performing a belly flop maneuver and landing near the launch pad. These ostentatious albeit crucial tests helped SpaceX iron out kinks in their Raptor engine, avionics, aerodynamic control, and tank pressurization systems which are essential for the teams to improve their understanding and development of a fully and rapidly reusable transportation system.
Deven Perez for Supercluster
SpaceX’s iterative and hardware-rich strategy during Starship development has helped them achieve rapid technological progress, all because of a rapid production ramp at the Starbase production facility which includes two large High Bays, a Mid bay, and numerous production tents, allowing multiple processing flows in parallel. Elon expects the Starship production facility to produce a full stack (a Starship and a Superheavy) every two months.
Since the last successful launch and landing of Ship 15, the teams shifted their focus on developing Starship’s first stage booster, Superheavy. Standing 70 meters (230 ft) tall, Superheavy is powered by 33 Raptor engines, together producing over 76 mega Newtons of force (17 million lbf) and will launch Starship to space. However, building a booster with 33 of the most complex engines ever developed was a challenge that even SpaceX wasn’t ready for.
Deven Perez for Supercluster
The first Superheavy prototype to enter testing was Booster 4, having moved to the launch pad on August 4, 2021. Although there was no engine testing involved with this prototype, it did undergo various cryogenic tests from December 2021 to March 2022, helping teams build, test, and perfect launch procedures for not only the Superheavy but also the newly built Orbital Launch Pad and its tank farm, which holds large amounts of cryogenic propellant needed for its planned rapid launches.
Booster 4 was also stacked along with Ship 20 on August 6, 2021, marking the first time the Starship launch system was fully stacked on the launch pad.
As teams made swift but constant improvements, SpaceX switched over to Booster 7 for further testing. Rolled out to the pad in March 2022, B7 underwent several cryogenic tests as a part of its initial test campaign but suffered a series of setbacks which included damage to its methane transfer tube during one of the cryogenic tests.
Deven Perez for Supercluster
Despite failures, the teams reworked the problem with the cryogenic propellant loading procedures. B7 was rolled back to the production facility where teams worked on fixing the booster for future tests. At the same time, SpaceX had already begun the construction of the next Superheavy prototype dubbed Booster 8. However, B8 hadn’t undergone any notable tests, and the focus was shifted to Booster 9, which included several design changes, including the ability to isolate any engine if it exploded mid-flight.
With repairs complete, Booster 7 was rolled out to the orbital launch pad and its testing campaign was well underway. The teams conducted two cryogenic tests successfully, bringing it one step closer to a static fire and eventual launch. To gain additional data and confidence in hardware readiness, SpaceX conducted a spin prime test of all the 33 Raptor engines installed on the Booster. During such a test, the fuel flows into the engine, but is not ignited in the gas generators. The cold gas spins the turbines at operational speeds and the turbopumps operate at nominal pressure, before spewing out the cold gasses instead of a flame. It’s basically a test of major components of an engine without an actual ignition.
However, an anomaly occurred during this test as the Raptor engines unexpectedly ignited and resulted in a huge flame, causing serious damage to the Booster and the launch pad.
Quick View: Starship
50 m / 164 ft
9 m / 29.5 ft
1,200 t / 2.6 Mlb
1,500 tf / 3.3Mlbf
100 - 150 t
Elon Musk clarified on Twitter that this was an issue with the spin start test for the Raptor 2 engines, which has a complex ignition sequence. Previous generation Raptor engines used an electric spark plug to ignite methane and oxygen. But to make the engine simpler, the spark plug was scrapped in favor of stoichiometrically igniting the engine, however, Elon has remained secretive about the details of such a complicated engine start-up sequence. The teams moved on, fixing and replacing some of the Raptor engines on Booster 7. A large amount of work was also carried out on the Orbital Launch Mount, which included the test of a water deluge system.
The test campaign progressed to static fires which started out with a single Raptor engine fire on August 9, followed by a 20-second firing of the same engine. As teams gained confidence in Superheavy and the launch pad systems, B7 successfully conducted a 7-engine static fire, achieving a good chamber pressure on all engines.
Meanwhile, Ship 24 was rolled down to the launch site and was stacked with Booster 7. The pair is still slated for their first orbital flight. B7 has received numerous reliability upgrades and the engine isolation system was retrofitted, however, Elon said it is still not as good as the B9. Throughout further testing, Booster 9 might be promoted to the first orbital flight, but that is yet to be seen.
On October 26, the fully stacked Starship launch system underwent a successful cryogenic proof test of the loading procedures during an actual orbital launch.
Ship 24 was then destacked as both vehicles proceeded further into their individual testing campaigns.
On November 15, B7 successfully performed a full-duration static fire of 14 of its Raptor engines. 15 days later, It performed another static fire with 11 Raptor engines to test out the Autogenous pressurization system which uses a self-generated gaseous propellant to pressurize the liquid propellants in the rockets, eliminating the need for helium, which is commonly used by other launch vehicles, including the Falcon 9, to maintain pressure in the rocket’s propellant tanks.
Quick View: Super Heavy
69 m / 230 ft
9 m / 30 ft
3400 t / 6.8 Mlb
7590 tf / 17 Mlbf
Following this successful 14-engine static fire, the teams rolled back Booster 7 to the production site for the final upgrades needed for orbital launch. Meanwhile, the launch pad received repairs in preparation for future tests. This included the replacement of concrete directly under the orbital launch mount which experiences the direct flames and forces of the Raptor engines when fired. During the latest test, the concrete was shattered and small chunks of it were seen raining down around the launch site. Workers ripped up the old concrete and poured in a new batch.
With the launch pad completing repairs and Booster 7 sporting further upgrades, all sights are set for more testing, including a 33-engine static fire, whose success will dictate a more precise date for an orbital launch.
While most of Starship’s systems were matured during the high-altitude test campaign, SpaceX continued to make the systems robust and ready them all for orbital launch.
What was learned from the Ship 20 testing was incorporated into Ship 24, which sported numerous design changes, including a Starlink payload door designed to specifically deploy Starlink satellites. However, the payload door was later sealed shut. Its testing began in June 2022 with a series of cryogenic tests to verify the structural integrity of the vehicle. Teams moved to perform several Spin Prime tests with all 6 Raptor engines installed, 3 sea-level and 3 vacuum-optimized.
In August 2022, Ship 24 conducted the first successful static fire with 2 Raptor engines. These tests were being conducted in parallel with Booster 7 at the Suborbital Pad B.
In September, all 6 Raptor engines were static fired for the first time on S24, verifying the engines’ readiness to support the orbital launch. While these tests were ultimately the test of engines and the launch vehicle, the teams also used this opportunity to refine countdown procedures.
On December 15, teams conducted a 7-second single-engine static fire and SpaceX shared an overhead view of this test.
In parallel to the test campaign, construction continued on the next Starship prototype, dubbed Ship 25, which includes various updates, including a functional Starlink payload bay. The prototype underwent numerous cryogenic tests at Suborbital Pad A.
Amidst the setbacks in the Superheavy testing campaign and a delay in the orbital flight, SpaceX reorganized the leadership within the Starbase launch facility in response to a sense of urgency building up within the company to get it flying. As reported by CNBC’s Micheal Sheetz, SpaceX’s president and Chief Operating Office Gwynne Shotwell and vice president Mark Juncosa will now oversee the facility and operations around the company’s south Texas facility.
For the past two years, Starship’s development operations were headed by Sam Patel, Senior director of Starship operations. As a part of a company shakeup, Patel — who was previously based at the company’s Cape Canaveral facilities — will be leaving the south Texas site to move back to the Cape. SpaceX also brought in Omead Afshar as a vice president of Starship production who previously worked at Tesla’s Gigafactory in Austin as an operations lead.
According to CNBC, this shuffle came up when Juncosa visited Starbase over the summer. What was supposed to be a two-week stint to update and bring a new perspective to the leadership, resulted in him finding alarming details, with an orbital launch attempt further away than expected.
Deven Perez for Supercluster
Starship for Artemis
Following the success of Artemis-1, NASA is in full momentum to return humans back to the Moon and onto Mars. The agency’s plan is heavily dependent on the success of Starship's launch architecture, which not only includes a nominal orbital launch, but also a host of promised features such as a high launch cadence, fast turnaround time, and most importantly, the in-flight propellant transfer.
On a regular Artemis mission, the Orion spacecraft will only go as far as the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) around the Moon. To reach the lunar surface, NASA has tasked SpaceX with developing a lunar variant of Starship and the supporting architecture which the astronauts will utilize to land on the surface of our nearest celestial body.
The first such mission is scheduled to be Artemis III which will begin with the launch of the Starship propellant depot in low earth orbit. This depot will be gradually refilled by tanker versions of Starship until it has enough propellant to support a lunar mission. SpaceX will then launch the lunar-optimized Starship, officially known as the Starship Human Landing System (HLS), from the historic Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’ll rendezvous with the propellant depot to refuel and maneuver itself to the NRHO around the Moon.
NASA will then launch 4 astronauts onboard the Orion spacecraft and the SLS rocket. The Orion spacecraft will execute a series of burns to place itself in the NRHO and rendezvous with the Starship HLS to dock with it. 2 Astronauts will board the Starship and descend down to a designated landing site at the Shackleton crater, located at the Moon's south pole. Once the surface mission is complete, Starship will launch from the surface of the moon and dock with the Orion spacecraft. The two astronauts will return to the Orion spacecraft and use it to finally return to Earth with a splashdown in the pacific ocean.
Deven Perez for Supercluster
The next Artemis missions will have a similar architecture but it’ll involve the use of the Gateway Space station, placed at the NRHO around the Moon. Artemis IV mission and beyond are scheduled to use the upgraded SLS Block-1B rocket, which will be equipped with a much more powerful second stage named, the Exploration Upper Stage, consisting of much wider and taller propellant tanks and 4 RL-10 engines. This extra thrust will also allow NASA to launch some additional cargo along with the regular Orion spacecraft with 4 astronauts.
Artemis IV will deliver the third module of the Gateway space station, named I-HAB. An abbreviation for International Habitation Module, it’ll be the second and the main habitation module for Gateway, primarily built by the European Space Agency and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA).
The refueled Starship HLS will be docked to Gateway, awaiting the Orion spacecraft. Once Orion reaches the Moon, it’ll dock to Gateway. Two crew members will transfer to Starship and two will remain on the space station. Similar to Artemis III, Starship will land at a designated landing site for science operations and return back once completed.
Deven Perez for Supercluster
Aside from the NASA-funded Artemis missions, SpaceX has also secured 3 privately funded missions with Starship, 2 of which will journey around the Moon.
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Starship’s first planned crewed mission will be the third and the last Polaris mission, funded by Shift4 Payments founder and CEO, Jared Isaacman. The Polaris program seeks to rapidly advance human spaceflight capabilities that will serve as building blocks to enable private human exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond while continuing to raise funds for St. Jude Children’s Hospital.
The second crewed flight of Starship and the first one to traverse to the Moon could be the dearMoon mission. Funded by Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, the mission will fly him and 8 artists in a single circumlunar trajectory around the Moon.
The third mission could fly Dennis Tito and his wife Akiko, along with 10 other people on a trajectory similar to the dearMoon mission. Who those 10 other passengers will be is still unknown. Dennis Tito, aged 82, already has flight experience when he became the first private person to go to the International Space Station in 2001 onboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
The Supercluster team will be heading down to Starbase for Starship's historic orbital launch attempt. Download our launch tracker app for more information and updates on the mission.