SpaceX’s first orbital Starship launch “highly likely” in Q1 2023
SpaceX’s first Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) Starship appears to have passed a busy week of stress tests, paving the way for the company to transport a completed Super Heavy booster to the pad.
Using the same launch pad, that Starship booster is expected to attempt to complete some of the most dangerous and challenging tests SpaceX has ever conducted at its Starbase rocket development facilities. The timetable for that testing is unclear, but after an extremely extended qualification test period, the Super Heavy Booster 7 (B7) may soon undergo a full static fire test of all 33 of its Raptor 2 engines. Either before or after that crucial test, SpaceX is also expected to install Ship 24 (S24) atop Super Heavy B7 for the Starship’s first “wet suit test.”
Ultimately, if this test produces the results SpaceX wants to see, CEO Elon Musk says Starship could attempt its first orbital launch in late February or March 2023.
We have a real hit at the end of February. Attempting to launch in March seems very likely.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 8, 2023 Booster 7
The Super Heavy B7 first left SpaceX’s Starbase factory in March 2022 and has been in a constant flow of testing, repairs, upgrades and more testing in the nine months since. The 69-meter-long (~225 ft), 9-meter-wide (~30 ft) steel rocket was severely damaged at least twice in April and July, requiring several weeks of substantial repairs. But neither example permanently damaged the Starship booster, and testing of Booster 7 has been cautious but mostly successful since the rocket’s last close call.
Since its return to OLS in early August, the Super Heavy B7 has completed six static fire tests of anywhere from one to fourteen of its 33 Raptor engines. It almost certainly dethroned the Falcon Heavy to become the most powerful rocket SpaceX has ever tested. And on January 8, 2023, SpaceX returned the rocket to the Orbital Launch Site of Starbase (OLS) for the seventh time. According to statements made by CEO Elon Musk and a presentation by a NASA official, the last major independent test between Booster 7 and flight readiness is a full static fire with 33 engines. Together, the B7’s 33 Raptor 2 engines can produce up to 7,600 tons (16.7 million lbf) of thrust at sea level, making Starship the most powerful rocket stage in the history of spaceflight.
Booster 7 completed an 11-Raptor long duration static fire for the last time. (SpaceX) Ship 24
The path of the Starship S24 prototype has been a little less rocky. The ship needs some less obvious repairs, especially right after her first tests in May 2022. As of August 2022, Ship 24 has completed three static fire tests – all apparently successful. Most importantly, one of those tests ignited all six of the S24’s Raptor engines, potentially qualifying it for an orbital launch attempt. Recently, SpaceX completed a series of mysterious repairs, replaced and flashed one of S24’s engines, and removed the Starship from its test stand.
With Booster 7 now awaiting installation on Starbase’s orbital launch assembly and Ship 24 almost simultaneously removed from the test stand, it appears that SpaceX may attempt another test before the Super Heavy’s full static fire. Instead, SpaceX could begin by assembling Ship 24 and Booster 7 and conducting a full wet-dress (WDR) test before shifting focus to Booster 7’s more dangerous static fire.
A wet dressing test is a routine test performed prior to a missile launch and is generally designed to simulate every aspect of the launch except engine ignition and liftoff. Crucially, this involves filling the rocket completely with propellant and passing all the checks that the same rocket would have to go through to be cleared for launch. For Starship, the largest rocket ever built, a full propellant load means filling both stages with an incredible ~5,000 tons of liquid oxygen and liquid methane propellants. SpaceX also needs to fill the rocket fast enough to keep its propellant super-cool, which increases its density and overall performance.
Amplifier 7 now returns to the high bay for stability improvements and amplifier 8 is moved to the block for testing.
The next big test is probably the full wet suit test, then 33 firing the engine in a few weeks.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 19, 2022
The first full WDR will thus test the Starbase launch equipment as much as Booster 7 and Ship 24. SpaceX has performed several Starship WDRs, but not with Ship 24. Also, it has never fully filled a Super Heavy booster with true thrusters, let alone both phases at once. Issues are likely to emerge as SpaceX pushes the envelope, likely requiring multiple efforts.
In the spirit of caution, SpaceX has even taken the unusual step of stress-testing the Starship’s orbital launch assembly with a custom gyro. In the first week of 2023, SpaceX used that tool to load pairs of 20 OLM hold-down pods with hundreds of tons of ballast, ensuring they could handle the sheer weight of a fully fueled Starship. The Super Heavy B4 and B7 validation tests likely subjected the OLM to 2000+ tons of force, but a complete Starship will weigh more than double the maximum weight the OLM has experienced to date.
Much risk remains, and SpaceX is trading speed cautiously, but this extra-cautious step is likely to reduce the risk of the launch assembly structure failing during wet suit and static fire testing. According to Musk, SpaceX has a “real shot” at preparing Starship for an orbital launch attempt “at the end of February.” However, Musk also hinted that a static fire with WDR and 33 engines would “probably” end “within a few weeks” in September 2022. What is clear is that SpaceX is more committed than ever to avoid a catastrophic failure during the Starship’s first orbital launch attempt.
Elon Musk: First orbital launch of SpaceX’s Starship ‘very likely’ in Q1 2023