Gwynne Shotwell, COO and President of SpaceX, says the company now expects Starbase to be ready for Starship’s first orbital launch attempt as early as June or July, pushing the schedule back a month or two.
To accomplish this feat, SpaceX must more or less pass a wide array of challenging and unproven tests and pass a series of exhaustive bureaucratic reviews, greatly increasing the likelihood that Starship’s orbital launch debut is actually closer to 3-6 months. While SpaceX could technically pull off a miracle or even attempt to launch hardware that has only been partially tested, even the most optimistic hypothetical scenarios still hinge on things largely beyond the company’s control.
Will it be FREE or will it not be FREE?
Both revolve around the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which – in SpaceX’s case – is responsible for conducting a “programmatic environmental assessment” (PEA) of Starship orbital launches from Boca Chica, Texas and Issuing a launch license for the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. In some ways, both tasks are unprecedented, but the bureaucratic processes involved are still largely the same as those that SpaceX has successfully navigated over the past two decades.
First, the FAA’s environmental review. Until recently, the fate of Starbase’s PEA was almost entirely indeterminate and could have taken many paths – most of which would not have been favorable to SpaceX. But just days ago, and about a week after the FAA’s recent announcement of a one- to two-month PEA delay, the agency updated an online dashboard to show that the fourth of five main PEA processes had been successfully completed. The most important part of the update is the implication that SpaceX and the FAA have now completed nearly every aspect of the PEA that requires collaboration with other federal agencies and local stakeholders.
Only one other collaborative process – ensuring Section 4(f) compliance – remains to be completed. Without getting into the details, there is no compelling evidence that this particular move will be a showstopper, although SpaceX may have to compromise on certain aspects of the starbase operations to complete it. Once Section 4(f) is behind them, the only thing standing between the FAA and SpaceX and a final PEA is the completion and approval of all relevant documentation. In other words, for the first time ever, the FAA’s target completion date — currently May 31, 2022 — could actually be achievable.
However, as the FAA itself is fond of pointing out: “Completing the PEA does not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license — SpaceX’s application must also meet the FAA’s safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements.” Even if the PEA is perfect, SpaceX has yet to secure an FAA launch license for the largest, most powerful rocket in history. It’s unclear if SpaceX and the FAA have already started this painful back-and-forth, or if lengthy fine print is preventing it from beginning before an environmental review has been conducted. Without knowing more, the introduction of licensing can take anywhere from a few days to several months.
A set of tubes
Without the FAA’s launch license and environmental approval, no Starship SpaceX builds can legally launch from starbase. On the other side of the coin, however, it’s just as true that the FAA’s nods of approval are worth about as much as the paper they’re written on without a missile ready for launch. In a perfect world, SpaceX would have a spacecraft and superheavy booster that would be fully qualified, stacked, and sitting in Starbase’s orbital launch site when the FAA finally gave the green light. However, it is not Right what the reality of SpaceX is today.
The first spacecraft orbital flight will be made with Raptor 2 engines, since they are much more powerful and reliable. 230 tons or ~500,000 pounds of thrust at sea level.
We will have 39 airworthy engines built by next month, then another month for integration, so hopefully in May for orbital flight testing.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 21, 2022
SpaceX has made significant progress over the past month and a half, but contrary to CEO Elon Musk’s March 21 hopes, the company will be absolutely not ready to attempt an orbital launch by the end of May. Still, Shotwell’s estimate of “June or July” may not be entirely out of reach. Since Musk’s tweet, SpaceX has completed assembly of Super Heavy Booster 7, rolled the rocket to launch site on March 31, and conducted several major tests in early April. However, during the final test, an apparent operator error severely damaged a large part installed in the booster, forcing SpaceX to return Super Heavy B7 to the Starbase construction site. After two and a half weeks of repairs, Booster 7 returned to launch site on May 6 and completed another “cryo-proof” test, apparently confirming that these quick repairs were doing the job.
Had Booster 7 not required repairs, it’s not impossible (but still hard) to imagine that SpaceX could have launched a super-heavy booster by the end of May. Still, the static fire tests Booster 7 has to perform are almost entirely unprecedented and could take months. To date, SpaceX has never fired more than six Raptors simultaneously on a Starship prototype, while Super Heavy will likely need to complete multiple tests with 33 engines before it can safely be considered ready to fly. Worse still, there is no guarantee that SpaceX Booster 7 will actually want to fly after taking damage. If Booster 8 carries the torch forward instead, Starship’s orbital launch debut could easily slip into late Q3 or Q4 2022.
Meanwhile, Super Heavy is only half the rocket. When Musk tweeted his “hopefully May” estimate, SpaceX was nowhere near completing the spacecraft — Ship 24 — thought to be destined for its orbital launch debut. However, SpaceX eventually accelerated the assembly of Ship 24 in recent weeks, eventually finishing stacking the upgraded spacecraft on May 8th. There’s still a lot of work to do to actually complete Ship 24, but SpaceX should be ready to send it to a test stand within a week or two. Although the tests that Ship 24 must complete were previously conducted by Ship 20, making its path forward less risky than that of Booster 7, Ship 24 will introduce a number of major design changes and will likely require at least two months of testing to achieve one Basic level of readiness to fly.
Finally, there is the question of the Orbital Launch Site (OLS) itself. Is the launch mount ready to survive a full superheavy static burn? Is the block’s tank farm ready to fill Starship and Super Heavy with several thousand tons of combustible, explosive, cryogenic fuel? If it’s a test flight target, is the launch tower ready for a Super Heavy Booster trying to land in its arms? While there are reasons to believe that the answer to some of these questions is yes, much uncertainty remains and much work is uncompleted.
Ultimately, Shotwell’s June goal is almost certainly unachievable. However, late July could be within the realm of possibility, but only in the unlikely event that all Booster 7 and Ship 24 tests complete near perfect and without further delay. For the pragmatic reader, August or September is a safer choice. Luckily, at least one thing is certain: Starbase activities are about to get a whole lot more exciting.