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 be by April 10, sources said.
Earlier this week, the company lifted its launch system’s massive “super heavy” first stage onto a launch mount on the pad. The next step involved lifting the starship upper stage above the first stage. Although these vehicles have previously been stacked for testing, this should be the final time to position them on the launch pad before liftoff.
In recent weeks technicians have added shielding to protect the launch mount and tower from the extreme heat from the Super Heavy’s launch, powered by 33 Raptor engines. The launch vehicle will have nearly twice the thrust of NASA’s Saturn V and Space Launch System rockets, the two most powerful rockets to reach orbit.
With that work largely done, focus now turns to the final major hurdle standing between SpaceX’s massive rocket and a launch effort—a license from the Federal Aviation Administration. While such regulatory issues are uncertain, a source said good progress was made towards granting such licenses in the first two weeks of April.
It also appears that, temporarily, NASA is saving Use of its high-altitude WB-57 aircraft for observation of Starship test flights on 10 and 11 April. The company is closely monitoring SpaceX’s progress with the giant rocket, as it plans to use the Starship vehicle as a lunar lander. Astronauts as part of the Artemis Moon Mission.
A long time coming
SpaceX previously completed a hot fire test of the Super Heavy first stage in early February. During that time, 31 of the rocket’s 33 engines ignited and burned at will. SpaceX determined that its engineers had received enough data from the test to proceed with a launch attempt. The booster and upper stage were then removed to facilitate work on the launch mount.
After it launches, the super-heavy rocket will fly east over the Gulf of Mexico from SpaceX’s Starbase launch site. For this test, the booster will not attempt to land. After stage separation, the Starship upper vehicle is intended to reach orbital velocity before attempting to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. If all goes well, it will make a controlled landing and land in the ocean just north of Hawaii Island.
After a rapid-fire testing campaign in 2020 and 2021 launching Starship prototypes, the company has moved more cautiously at its development and testing facility in South Texas. That’s because the company likely invested more than $1 billion in a massive launch-and-catch tower to support starships and superheavies, as well as ground systems to support fueling the massive vehicles.
With so many assets clustered in a small area near the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX doesn’t really want to risk destroying the infrastructure it spent more than a year building and testing. This would set the starship launch mission back a few months, at least, as the area is rebuilt. That would likely double the regulatory concerns raised as part of the Federal Aviation Administration’s process to clear the South Texas location for test orbital launches.