SpaceX moved the most flight-ready of its Starship rockets, Ship 24, to a launch site in South Texas on Saturday. While a launch is not imminent this week, it could take place as early as April 10, sources said.
Earlier this week, the company lifted the massive “Super Heavy” first stage of its launch system onto a launch mount at the pad. The next step will involve lifting the Starship upper stage into place, atop the first stage. While these vehicles have been previously stacked for testing, this should be the final time they are positioned on the launch pad before lifting off.
In recent weeks technicians have added shielding to protect the launch mount and tower from the extreme heating from the launch of Super Heavy, which is powered by 33 Raptor engines. The launch vehicle will have about double the thrust of the two most powerful rockets ever to reach orbit, NASA’s Saturn V and Space Launch System rockets.
With this work largely completed, the focus now turns toward the final significant hurdle standing between SpaceX’s massive rocket and a launch attempt—a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. While such regulatory matters are uncertain, a source said good progress is being made toward the issuance of such a license during the first two weeks of April.
It also appears that, tentatively, NASA is reserving the use of its high-altitude WB-57 aircraft for observations of the Starship test flight on April 10 and 11. The agency is closely tracking SpaceX’s progress with the massive rocket, as it intends to use the Starship vehicle as a lunar lander for its astronauts as part of the Artemis Moon missions.
A long time coming
SpaceX previously completed a hot fire test of the Super Heavy first stage in early February. At the time, 31 of the rocket’s 33 engines ignited and burned as intended. SpaceX determined that its engineers had obtained enough data from the test to proceed toward a launch attempt. After that the booster and upper stage were removed to facilitate work on the launch mount.
After it launches, the Super Heavy rocket will fly from SpaceX’s Starbase launch site eastward, over the Gulf of Mexico. For this test, the booster will not attempt a landing. After stage separation, the Starship upper vehicle is intended to reach orbital velocity before attempting a reentry into Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. If all goes well, it will make a controlled descent and landing into the ocean just north of the Hawaiian islands.
After a rapid-fire test campaign in 2020 and 2021 of launching Starship prototypes, the company has moved more cautiously at its development and test facility in South Texas. This is because the company has likely invested more than $1 billion in a massive launch-and-catch tower to support Starship and Super Heavy, as well as ground systems to support fueling of the massive vehicles.
Because so many assets are clustered in a small area near the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX really does not want to take the risk of destroying infrastructure it has spent more than a year building and testing. This would set the Starship launch campaign back months, at least, as the area is rebuilt. It would also probably redouble regulatory concerns that were raised as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s process to clear the South Texas location for experimental orbital launches.