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SpaceX confirms it is shifting to Starship orbital test flights

Capitalism in space: By shifting both the 15th and 16th Starship prototypes to its garden at Boca Chica of retired spacecraft, SpaceX has essentially confirmed that it has shifted operations there from short test hops to Starship orbital test flights.

Built as the first of several planned backups to Starship SN15, which debuted a number of significant upgrades in April and May, it appears that Starship serial number 16 (SN16) has been retired to a display stand after its only sibling became the first full-size prototype to successfully survive a launch and landing on May 5th. SN16 actually reached its full height before SN15 lifted off and was more or less complete by May 10th. Since then, the prototype has remaining more or less untouched, seemingly waiting for SpaceX to decide its fate in lieu of Starship SN15’s major success.

Ultimately, with SN16 now sitting side by side with SN15 at what will likely become a sort of open-air SpaceX museum, it appears that the company has made up its mind.

In other words, prototype #16, though built and ready to fly, will likely never do so. Instead, the company is focusing its operations on preparing for the first orbital test flights using Starship prototype #20 stacked on top of a Superheavy, with the first flight planned to circle three-quarters of the globe to land in the Pacific northeast of Hawaii.

Since neither #20 nor its Superheavy are fully assembled, that flight will likely not occur in July, as SpaceX had initially suggested as its targeted launch date. However, with all work now focused on that orbital test flight, it is almost certain they will attempt it before the year is out.

The big question is whether Starship’s first orbital flight will beat out SLS’s first orbital flight, presently scheduled for November but expected to be delayed.

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On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

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  • James Street

    I’ve been wondering how Starship was going to release payloads. This 7 second clip from a Marcus House video shows an artist’s concept of Starship with a clamshell fairing
    (queued to start at 2:33 of a 21:21 video)

  • James Street

    5 second clip from the same Marcus House video showing an artist’s concept of Starship landing on the moon using thrusters halfway up its side
    (queued to start at 2:56)

  • Dick Eagleson

    I think Teslarati’s Eric Ralph is too pessimistic about the chances of flying an initial Starship full-stack orbital test mission before the end of July. Regulatory issues may still prevent such a launch, but nothing else appears to be standing in the way.

    There is plenty of time to complete both Starship SN20 and Booster 2, as it’s now being called, in time for a July lift-off. Booster 2 is already over half stacked in the Starbase High Bay and major pieces of SN20, as well as remaining pieces of Booster 2, are already assembled, as sub-components, as well.

    The orbital launch site is also being completed at flank speed. The penultimate launch support tower section will likely travel from the production site to the orbital launch site later today, most probably in company with a recently finished “cryo-shell” to be placed over one of the propellant storage tanks at the orbital site. The last launch support tower section will likely be completed sometime this weekend along with another cryo-shell. Both will probably follow their immediate predecessors in another parade down Rte. 4 to the orbital launch site early next week.

    At current rates of progress, the orbital launch site looks as though it could be minimally ready to support launch operations by mid-July. The launch support tower’s stacking crane likely won’t be installed by then nor will the “booster grabber” that is also planned. But neither should be necessary for the initial orbital test launch. Both will, though, likely be in place by the time a second orbital test launch can take place.

    I think the “race” between Starship and SLS over which goes to space first is already all but settled. Starship is already pounding down the home stretch while SLS is still somewhere back in the clubhouse turn. It won’t be a photo-finish.

  • Burton Chan

    We may have declared SN16’s retirement prematurely. Musk tweeted that they might use SN16 for a hypersonic test. Maybe to reduce risk for the inaugural orbital launch attempt to splashed Starship SN20 near Kauai HI (more precisely the Pacific Missile Range Facility aka Barking Sands).

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