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SpaceX ready to launch Starship prototype #24 into orbit

According to a statement yesterday by one SpaceX official, the company is now ready to launch its Superheavy #7 booster, stacked with its Starship prototype #24, on an orbital test flight, with the only remaining obstacle to launch the launch license, not yet approved by the FAA.

Speaking on a panel at the Space Mobility conference here about “rocket cargo” delivery, Gary Henry, senior advisor for national security space solutions at SpaceX, said both the Super Heavy booster and its launch pad were in good shape after the Feb. 9 test, clearing the way for an orbital launch that is still pending a Federal Aviation Administration launch license. “We had a successful hot fire, and that was really the last box to check,” he said. “The vehicle is in good shape. The pad is in good shape.”

…“Pretty much all of the prerequisites to supporting an orbital demonstration attempt here in the next month or so look good,” he said.

Henry also outlined SpaceX’s overall plans for Starship in the next year or two, beginning with a series of test/operational launches that will iron out the kinks of the rocket while simultaneously placing Starlink satellites into orbit. At the same time, development will shift to creating a Moon lander version of Starship for NASA’S Artemis program, including doing refueling tests of Starship in orbit. These test flights will also lead quickly to the three private manned flights that SpaceX already has contracts for, including two around the Moon and one in Earth orbit.

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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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  • As with all rockets, it takes time to get things running as smooth as a Falcon 9 but SpaceX has the track record to do it. I am looking forward to watching this massive vehicle take flight.

  • George C

    I’m ready.

  • Ray Van Dune

    “These test flights will also lead quickly to the three private manned flights that SpaceX already has contracts for, including two around the Moon and one in Earth orbit.”

    The wording of the timeframe anticipated for the private Starship flights does not appear to be consistent with the “hundreds of flights” often stated as a prerequisite before any manned flight. This is of course simply an impression gained from the wording, as there are no hard number of flights given.

  • Edward

    I am impressed that Super Heavy survived the acoustic pounding that it undoubtedly received during the static fire test. I should probably be surprised, but SpaceX has accomplished several surprising things in the past. During the test launch, we will see how well the “Mechazilla” launch tower survives the heat and acoustics. NASA’s tower elevator had some damage from the SLS launch.

    The Space News article gave us a very important piece of information:

    Starship, Henry argued later in the panel, will sharply drive down launch costs. “We are on the cusp of seeing an opportunity of mass to orbit go from $2,000 a kilogram to $200 a kilogram,” he said. In the long term, costs could further decline to the point where the propellant is the largest factor in the per-launch marginal cost.

    “If Elon gets his way,” he said, “you’re at $20 per kilogram.”

    $200 per kilogram and lifting 100 tonnes of payload per launch gives us a price tag of $20 million per launch. If Elon gets his way, Starship should be able to lift 150 tonnes of payload, and at $20 per kilogram each launch would be $3 million.

    By the way, in the 1990s customers with commercial payloads (commercial communication satellite operators) were begging for launch costs to drop to $2000 per launch, saying that there would be many more customers pounding down the doors for launches at such low launch prices. (This was a large part of the incentive for the X-Prize, a way to encourage reusable rockets.) Falcon 9 has shown that they were correct. Prices are now in that range, and the customer base is growing at a rapid rate. Think of all the business that a launch company would get if it can reduce launch costs to a similar price as sending a package overnight on Earth.

    Bill Whittle thinks that space isn’t just the final frontier but that it is our last source of wonder, and Starship will get us there: (20 minutes)

    Ray Van Dune,
    I suspect that the number of consecutive successful landings will be a more important consideration than the flights themselves.

  • Milt

    Robert writes: “[T]he only remaining obstacle to launch [is] the launch license, not yet approved by the FAA.”

    Seen from a political perspective, this is clearly a test of whether the Biden Administration’s real goal is to have a functional national space program or to continue to advance its “America is evil and it must be punished / destroyed” agenda. Which does it want?

    In this case, perhaps both, but never underestimate the power of ideology when it comes to making critical decisions. On the other hand, this administration has just agreed to work with Tesla to subsidize the establishment of a nationwide network of charging stations — probably not out if its love for Mr. Musk, but to advance its green policies as rapidly as possible. (No worries that our antiquated power grid is probably not up to this task.; that’s another story… Just ask Mayor Pete.)

    So, too, perhaps with space exploration.

    Likewise, there are the geopolitical considerations vis a vis our rivalry with China. That is, is it actually our national objective, as the Biden Administration understands it, to be at least competitive with the Chinese in space, or — so as to better chastise the American public for its sins, reduce our carbon footprint, and adopt the Davos consensus about what our future should be like* — ought we to voluntarily cede supremacy to that nation and no longer pretend to be the global leader in space technology?

    Pretty quickly, we shall see.

    *Listening to one of NASA Director Bill Nelson’s recent panel discussions on CSPAN / NASA Select TV, it seems pretty obvious that he has become a totally woke team player whose “vision” — at least in public — is now much more about inclusiveness and equity than making sure the the United States remains a leader in space exploration. (Competence, as we are now being told, is “bad,” and other considerations must always guide our policies as opposed to merely getting the job done.) Listening to his presentation, it was impossible not to (1) feel that he may suffer from some of President Biden’s age-related handicaps, and (2) feel embarrassment that such a public figure should be used in such a shameless fashion to shill for a political / ideological agenda. It was actually disturbing — and rather sad — to watch.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Edward, the number of landings vs. flights is a side issue in my opinion. The real issue is that every time human flight on Starship is discussed, both Musk and Shotwell have been at pains to emphasize the large number of unmanned flights that will be used to human-qualify Starship. Yet that perspective is lacking from the hung-ho statement cited in the article.

    Perhaps SpaceX should tell us how many successful flights involving what achievements will be regarded as proof of fitness for human use.

    Another aspect is of course the source of the human certification. NASA can specify this for Artemis flights, but what about Dear Moon, etc., where no NASA astronauts or facilities will necessarily be involved.

    I also think we need to differentiate between human-involved launch, flight, and landing. Qualification for these phases may be achieved in different timeframes, especially given the availability of human-rated Falcon 9 / Dragon to ferry human crew to and from Starship.

    SpaceX needs to put some clarity behind these issues.

  • Star Bird

    Where out there is the Jupiter 2?

  • Edward

    Ray Van Dune,
    You have some very good thoughts on an important topic.

    It may be too soon to be concerned about the human rating, because SpaceX has yet to show that it can get into orbit, much less that it can get anyone back alive. We are all eager for this bird to fly, but keep the priorities in mind. SpaceX needs to get the second generation Starlink satellites on orbit. Satisfying the Artemis HLS contract is important but not as urgent. This latter goal may be able to be worked as they work the manned landings on Earth, but the reality is that the next Starship (#25?) does not have heat shielding, which means that SpaceX is willing to expend some Starships without using them to develop reentry and landing.

    You wrote: “Perhaps SpaceX should tell us how many successful flights involving what achievements will be regarded as proof of fitness for human use.

    This is why I think the number of successful landings is more important. It seems that some of this year’s upcoming missions may be expendable, without attempted landings. These would not necessarily increase confidence in the ability of Starship to return a crew alive. Successful landings would be needed to give us that confidence.

    I also think we need to differentiate between human-involved launch, flight, and landing. Qualification for these phases may be achieved in different timeframes, especially given the availability of human-rated Falcon 9 / Dragon to ferry human crew to and from Starship.

    I don’t know that SpaceX yet has any contracts for — or inquiries into — returning material from space using Starship, so man-rating it for launch, flight, reentry, and landing may be the priority.

    Using Dragon to shuttle crews to and from an on-orbit Starship may allow for earlier manned uses, should reentry prove difficult. Reports continue to come out that the heat shield tiles are still coming loose during static fire tests, which suggests that they may detach during launch. This will make reentry development difficult until this problem is finally solved.

    Meanwhile, a Dragon-shuttle system could accommodate the three currently planned manned missions. This also fits in with thoughts that I have given before that a Starship could be used as a space station. Such a space station could possibly even become available before the four space stations that various companies are already building. This system would also require that Starship be man-rated, but only for in-space use, not launch or landing.

    Qualifying and certifying Starship for manned use only in space may be as simple as the rating methods used for Orion, Dragon, and Starliner. This may be able to be accomplished relatively quickly, as happened with Dragon, is happening with Starliner, and will happen with Orion. For Orion, however, the certification flight will come as a flight around the Moon. That is bold.

    We are approaching the latter stages of Starship development, but it may still be too early for SpaceX to give much clarity on these issues. There are still too many questions and possibilities. What if the first Starship flight is much more successful than expected, and Starship returns successfully on its first flight? Reusability and manned launches and landings could come fairly quickly. If Starship is damaged on reentry, then it is unknown how many additional development flights will be necessary to make it work.

    Eager as we are for clarity and for an operational manned Starship, the priorities still lie elsewhere.

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