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Musk: Starship orbital attempt by November, at the latest

According to a tweet yesterday by Elon Musk, SpaceX engineers will likely have the first orbital prototypes of Starship and Superheavy ready for the orbital attempt either late in October, or by November. His full tweet:

Late next month maybe, but November seems highly likely. We will have two boosters & ships ready for orbital flight by then, with full stack production at roughly one every two months. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words are the most significant. SpaceX is not building one rocket for test, like NASA has done with SLS. It is building an assembly line of test rockets, so that it can do a fast series of test launches plus upgrades, leading to quick and reliable operations. Should any one rocket launch fail, the company will speedily move on to the next, with little or no delay.

Should SLS fail in its first test launch sometime in the next month, NASA has no back-up. The entire program will be shattered, with no easy way to recover.

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12 comments

  • Jeremy, Alabama

    What a plan SLS is. If the first launch succeeds, it puts $1B into the Atlantic. If it fails, it puts $30B into the toilet. And to launch this year, they will need to hire a Range Safety Officer whose only employment will be to approve the unapprovable.

  • Jhon B

    You know they will find a left handed green spotted pollywog near the fence and the eco nuts will attack.

  • David Ross

    “And to launch this year, they will need to hire a Range Safety Officer whose only employment will be to approve the unapprovable.”
    Hire me. I want that job. Easiest job in the world. “Eff off, are you effing kidding me” I’ll say and then head down the pub.
    Unfortunately they’ll probably hire some hack who will get people killed instead.

  • Col Beausabre

    They (NASA) don’t hire anyone. Their RSO will belong to the Space Force’s Eastern Test Range and responsible ONLY to its commanding general for flight safety (his or her only responsibility)

  • Ray Van Dune

    Inasmuch as the data collected to this point has nothing to do with the FTS, and no additional FTS data will apparently be gathered, it is not evident to me why the RSO is not either saying “no-go”, or “go” from an FTS point of view.

    Are they waiting for a hurricane to relieve them of the onus of enforcing safety regs? Or are they just allowing NASA to waste time, instead of being in the VAB working to ensure the ability to meet a future window?

  • Concerned

    NASA launched 7 Apollo missions (7-13) in the span of 18 months from Oct.1968 to April 1970. It was hugely more expensive in adjusted dollars than what SpaceX has spent on Starship, but it showed what a program driven by visionaries with a concrete goal could accomplish. That model no longer exists at NASA, but thank goodness Elon has taken on the mantle.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “SpaceX is not building one rocket for test, like NASA has done with SLS. It is building an assembly line of test rockets, so that it can do a fast series of test launches plus upgrades, leading to quick and reliable operations. Should any one rocket launch fail, the company will speedily move on to the next, with little or no delay.

    One difference is that SpaceX is in development phase and requires new test units to be ready in short order. SLS is almost ready to be declared operational, so it does not need any more development units. Since NASA was using mostly tried and true hardware and methods, they did not need much in the way of development units.

    SpaceX’s high rate of production is a tribute to the fact that they designed the system not just for rapid development, requiring the inclusion of improvements onto the next version in a short period of time, but the system is designed for rapid expansion of the number of flight units, once operational, requiring the final design of each version to be built in a short period of time in order to fill out the required number of operational units quickly. Starship started with the mission of delivering a million people to Mars in only a few decades, so with such a clear mission, it obviously needed many starships for each Earth-Mars transit opportunity, and was designed to meet this requirement.

    Should SLS fail in its first test launch sometime in the next month, NASA has no back-up. The entire program will be shattered, with no easy way to recover.

    Counter to the Starship design, SLS had no mission when it was designed, so its design was generic rather than specific to any mission. It was designed for infrequent use, because there was no direction from Congress to make it more frequent. It is expensive, because there was no direction from Congress to make it economical.

    Without specific guidance, the design had no goal to achieve, so it achieves no goal. Congress conceived it with nothing to do, so it does nothing much, yet still meets Congress’s design requirements.

    When NASA was directed to return to the Moon and create a sustainable manned presence there, SLS-Orion was the only thing they had in their toolbox, but it was not designed for this mission and is insufficient to support a sustainable presence. It is the wrong tool for the task, like needing a screwdriver but only having a hammer. When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.

    Without a need to launch frequently, this early version was designed to launch every couple of years, so there is no need to have another rocket ready for the pad any time soon. Despite this particular SLS rocket being almost two years old, the next one is not yet complete for the next mission.

    To paraphrase Federal Express: SLS — when it absolutely, positively has to get there sometime in the next few years.

    Starship, on the other hand, had a specific mission that required rapid reusability and multiple types (manned Mars lander, cargo lander, tanker) in order to accomplish that mission. This drove Starship to be designed with flexibility, and this flexibility is being taken advantage of in order to fulfill even more missions than the original mission, by designing even more types of Starship (lunar lander, payload, point-to-point, Starlink dispenser).

  • Bob, after the success or failure of the upcoming launches, could you provide us an article. maybe in December, comparing direct costs of Musk’s big lifters to SLS? Thanks.

  • Rick Masters: I can answer that question right now:

    SLS:
    Since this program was proposed by Bush Jr in 2004, Congress has appropriated around $50 billion to build both SLS and Orion. From that, we have gotten two rockets and about four capsules (two for testing). That cost however does not include the Orion service module, which Europe is building.

    Starship/Superheavy:
    At this moment SpaceX has raised about $12 billion in capital, $2.9 billion of which will be paid by NASA for the lunar lander version of Starship. Therefore, to develop and build this heavy lift rocket, SpaceX will likely spend about $9 billion.

    At the same time, it is already getting some profits back from Starlink, reducing the cost.

    I will almost certainly write this up in more detail, once both have launched. The contrast is startling.

    Make sure also you look at the graph on this page: Capitalism in Space. (That is also a free pdf download, and definitely worth reading.)

  • Edward

    Robert,
    You wrote: “At this moment SpaceX has raised about $12 billion in capital, $2.9 billion of which will be paid by NASA for the lunar lander version of Starship.

    My understanding is that some portion of the $12 billion goes to creating the Starlink constellation. I believe that this amount, however much it may be, should be subtracted from the cost of developing and operating Starship.

    Even though you have done a comparison before, it may be interesting to revisit this comparison with more finalized numbers and to include commentary about the achievements of each system. For instance, SpaceX may launch some satellites on its orbital test flights. Each system may have its own interesting advancements and possibilities for use, and these may be good topics that help distinguish the two rockets from each other. Starship may be more flexible, but SLS has uses, despite its fairly large cost.

    A comparison of the expected or actual operating costs and the prices per pound (or kilogram) for a launch on each system may also be worth analyzing. In the past, I have estimated that Starship launch prices may be similar, pound for pound, as flying overnight packages from San Francisco to Paris. SLS may cost somewhat more.

    It may be nice to have an analysis of how much more development of the space economy can occur with a low-cost Starship than with current orbital launch systems around the world. Since actual pricing information may not yet be available, the cost analysis may have to be ballpark or order-of-magnitude, making economic expansion predictions difficult.

    Please consider these topics for the next time you do a (large) essay or commentary comparing and contrasting Starship with SLS. Assuming that SLS lasts that long.

  • Jeff Wright

    Starship isn’t exactly cheap either—all the money Musk spent on rocketry also needs to be counted

    Shuttle Derived HLLVs have been looked at longer than Congress decided to listen—the “Senate Launch System” phrase a lie.

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright wrote: “Starship isn’t exactly cheap either—all the money Musk spent on rocketry also needs to be counted

    All the money spent on rocketry? Such as the money spent on Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy? If that is the case, shouldn’t all the money that NASA spent on rocketry also be counted in the cost of SLS? Such as the money spent on Projects Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Shuttle, Delta-X, X-33, as well as SLS?

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