The first orbital launch of SpaceX’s spacecraft “very likely” in November, says Elon Musk

CEO Elon Musk says it is “very likely” that SpaceX will be ready to attempt its first orbital starship launch in November 2022, and possibly as early as the end of October. But many important obstacles remain.

Adding a welcome burst of information about SpaceX’s fully reusable Starship rocket program, Musk took to Twitter on Sept. 21 to provide a little more specific insight into the company’s next steps towards a crucial debut in orbital launch. On September 19, the CEO revealed that SpaceX would return the Starship (B7) booster currently assigned to that debut to the factory for mysterious “ruggedness upgrades” – an unexpected move soon after a seemingly successful and record-breaking static fire test.

Two days later, Musk indicated that such updates could involve strengthening the boost section of Super Heavy Booster 7 to ensure it can survive Raptor engine failures. With 33 Raptor V2 engines powering it and plenty of evidence that those Raptors are far from perfect reliability, the concern is understandable, even if the answer is a bit different from the SpaceX norm.

Prior to the start of preparations for the debut of Starship’s orbital launch, SpaceX accelerated the development of Starship in this way wanted destroy as many rockets as possible, which, to some extent, has happened. Instead of spending 6-12 months fiddling with the same few prototypes without a single launch attempt, SpaceX churned out spaceships and test items and tested them aggressively. Sometimes, SpaceX pushed a little too hard and made avoidable mistakes, but most failures resulted in large amounts of data that was then used to improve future vehicles.

The holy grail of that project was the high-altitude spaceship flight tests, which saw SpaceX finish, test and launch a new spaceship five times in six months, and culminated in the first full high-altitude launch and landing. happened in May 2021.

By comparison, the preparations for SpaceX’s orbital flight tests were almost unrecognizable. While much progress has been made in the 16 months since SN15’s successful launch and landing, it is clear that SpaceX has decided versus taking significant risks. After spending more than six months slowly finishing and testing Super Heavy Booster 4 and Starship 20, the first pair of orbital-class, SpaceX has never even attempted a single static fire of the Booster 4 and unceremoniously retired both prototypes without ceremony. not even try to fly.

Without information from Musk or SpaceX, we may never know why SpaceX gave up on the B4 and S20, or why the company appears to have revised its development approach to be a little more conservative after clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of moving fast and take great risks. It’s possible that winning a $ 3 billion contract that puts Starship at the center of NASA’s attempt to bring astronauts back to the moon has encouraged a more careful approach. SpaceX won that contract in April 2021.

Even in its more cautious third phase, Starship’s development is still extraordinarily rich in hardware, moves fast, and uncovers a lot of problems on the ground instead of learning from flight tests. But that doesn’t change the fact that Starship’s third development phase (second half 2021 – today) is progressing more carefully than the first (Q4 2018 to Q4 2019) and second (Q1 2020 – Q2 2021). ).

However, SpaceX finally appears to be getting closer to Starship’s first orbital launch. According to Musk, the company may be ready for the first launch attempt as early as the end of October, but a November attempt is “highly likely”. He believes SpaceX will have two pairs of orbital-class spaceships and Super Heavy boosters (B7 / S24; B8 / S25) “ready for orbital flight by then,” potentially allowing for a quick return to flight after the first attempt. Musk is also excited about Super Heavy Booster 9, which has “many changes to the design“and a thrust section that will completely isolate all 33 Raptors from each other, essential to prevent the failure of one engine from damaging the others.

Meanwhile, as Musk predicted, Super Heavy Booster 8 arrived on the launch pad on September 19th and will likely be tested in the near future while Booster 7 will be upgraded at the factory.

As encouraging as it may be, history has shown that reality, particularly when it comes to Starship’s orbital launch debut, may be a little different from the images Elon Musk paints. In September 2021, for example, Musk predicted that SpaceX would conduct the first Super Heavy static fire on the Starbase orbital launch pad later this month. In fact, that crucial test occurred 11 months later (August 9, 2022) and used a completely different booster.

This is to say that significant progress has been made in recent months, but SpaceX still has an enormous amount of work, almost all on uncharted terrain. Spaceship 24, which completed its first six-engine static fire earlier this month, is currently undergoing strange modifications that seem to imply that the upper stage is not living up to SpaceX’s expectations. It is unclear whether further testing will be needed.

Super Heavy B7 returned to the factory for further work after a successful seven Raptor static fire. Once back on the pad, sequencing is unclear, but SpaceX will have to complete the first wet Super Heavy full trial (fully loading the booster with thousands of tons of flammable propellant) And the first complete static fire of 33 Raptors. It remains to be seen whether SpaceX will continue its conservative approach (i.e. testing one, three, and seven engines in six weeks) or will go straight from testing seven to 33 engines.

It is also unclear where ship 24 fits into that image. SpaceX will eventually (or should) conduct a fully wet dress rehearsal of the fully stacked spaceship and may also want to attempt a static fire with 33 engines with that fully powered two-stage vehicle to truly test the rocket under the same conditions it will be launched below. Will SpaceX fully stack the B7 and S24 as soon as the booster returns to the pad, risking a potentially airworthy spaceship during the riskiest Super Heavy tests ever made?

Booster 7 set a new Starbase record when it turned on 7 Raptors simultaneously on September 19th. (SpazioX)

SpaceX’s last year of operation suggests the company will choose caution and conduct wet and static fire tests of 33 engines before and after stacking, potentially doubling the amount of testing required. One or more tests will also be needed if SpaceX decides to gradually build up to 33 engines, which is the approach all Booster 7 activities to date suggest SpaceX will take.

Either way, it will be a big challenge for SpaceX to have a fully stacked spaceship ready for launch by end of November. Self whatever significant problems arise during whatever of the many unprecedented tests described above, Musk’s planned schedule is likely to become impossible. As a wild card, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not yet issued SpaceX with a license or experimental permit for Starship’s orbital launches, one of which is subject to dozens of “mitigations”.

This is not to say that it is impossible for an orbital launch attempt of a spaceship to take place in November. But taking into account the numerous problems Booster 7 and Ship 24 encountered during much simpler testing, it is becoming increasingly implausible that SpaceX will be ready to launch the pair before the end of 2022. Stay tuned.
The first orbital launch of SpaceX’s spacecraft “very likely” in November, says Elon Musk

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