CEO Elon Musk says it is “very likely” that SpaceX will be ready for the spacecraft’s first orbital launch attempt in November 2022, and possibly as early as late October. But many major obstacles remain.
Adding to the welcome glimpse of SpaceX’s fully reusable rocket program, Musk appeared on Twitter on September 21 to provide a slightly more detailed view of the company’s next steps towards a key orbit debut. On September 19, the CEO revealed that SpaceX will bring back the spacecraft afterburner (B7) currently assigned to this debut to the factory in order to obtain mysterious “endurance upgrades” – an unexpected move right after an apparently successful and record-breaking static fire test.
Two days later, Musk indicated that these improvements could include reinforcing the Super Heavy Booster 7’s thrust section to ensure its survival in the event of a Raptor engine failure. With 33 Raptor V2 engines propelling it, and lots of evidence that these Raptors are far from perfect reliability, the concern is understandable, even if the response is slightly different from the SpaceX standard.
Before preparing for the spacecraft’s orbital debut, SpaceX sped up spacecraft development in a similar way wanted destroy as many rockets as possible – which to some extent was successful. Instead of spending 6-12 months tinkering with the same few prototypes without a single take-off attempt, SpaceX mass-produced spacecraft and tested the articles and tested them aggressively. Several times, SpaceX pushed a little too hard and made avoidable mistakes, but most failures generated large amounts of data that was then used to improve future vehicles.
The Holy Grail of this project was the high altitude spacecraft flight tests, during which SpaceX completed, tested and launched the new spacecraft five times in six months, culminating in the first fully successful high altitude spacecraft takeoff and landing in May 2021. .
By comparison, SpaceX’s preparations for orbital flight tests were almost unrecognizable. While significant progress has been made in the 16 months following the successful takeoff and landing of the SN15, it is clear that SpaceX has decided against taking significant risks. After spending over six months of slow finishing and testing Super Heavy Booster 4 and Starship 20, the first orbital class pair, SpaceX never even tried a single Booster 4 static fire and unceremoniously withdrew both prototypes without attempting to fly.
Without information from Musk or SpaceX, we may never know why SpaceX has ditched the B4 and S20, or why the company seems to rethink its development approach to be a bit more conservative after clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of moving fast and taking big risks. It is possible that winning a $ 3 billion contract that puts the spacecraft at the forefront and center in NASA’s attempt to return astronauts to the moon has spurred a more cautious approach. SpaceX won this contract in April 2021.
Even in a more cautious third phase, spacecraft development is still incredibly rich in gear, moving fast, and discovering a lot of problems on the ground instead of learning from flight testing. However, this does not change the fact that the third phase of the spacecraft development (H2 2021 – today) is more cautious than the first (Q4 2018 to Q4 2019) and the second (Q1 2020 – Q2 2021) phase.
Nevertheless, it seems as if SpaceX is finally getting closer to the first orbital launch of the spacecraft. According to Musk, the company may be ready for its first launch attempt as early as late October, but the November attempt is “very likely”. He believes SpaceX will have two pairs of orbital-class spacecraft and super-heavy boosters (B7 / S24; B8 / S25) “ready for orbital flight by then”, potentially allowing a quick return to flight after the first attempt. Musk is also excited about Super Heavy Booster 9 which has “many design changesand a thrust section that will fully isolate all 33 Raptors from each other – crucial to ensure that failure of one engine does not damage others.
Meanwhile, as Musk predicted, the Super Heavy Booster 8 crashed into the launcher on September 19 and will likely be tested in the near future while the Booster 7 will be retrofitted at the factory.
While it may be encouraging, history has shown that the reality – especially when it concerns a spacecraft’s debut into orbit – may be slightly different than the paintings Elon Musk paints. For example, in September 2021 Prophesied Musk that SpaceX will launch the first super heavy static fire on a Starbase orbital launcher later this month. In fact, this pivotal test took place 11 months later (August 9, 2022) and used a completely different amplifier.
This means that a lot of progress has been made in the last few months, but SpaceX still has a tremendous amount of work to do, almost everything of which lies in unexplored territory. Starship 24, which ended its first six-engine static fire earlier this month, is currently undergoing strange modifications that seem to suggest that the higher tier does not live up to SpaceX’s expectations. It is unclear whether additional testing will be required.
The Super Heavy B7 returns to the factory for additional work after the successful static fire of the seven Raptor. Once back on the washer, the sequence is not clear, but SpaceX will have to complete the first full wet wet test of Super Heavy (fully loaded into the booster with thousands of tons of flammable fuel) and the first full static fire of the 33-Raptor. Time will tell if SpaceX will continue its conservative approach (i.e. testing one, three and seven engines over a six week period) or jump straight from testing seven to 33 engines.
It is also unclear where Ship 24 fits into this image. SpaceX will eventually have to (or should) do a full wet practice rehearsal of a fully stacked spacecraft, and may even want to try a 33 engine static fire with this fully powered two stage vehicle to really test the rocket under the same conditions it will launch under. Will SpaceX fully lay the B7 and S24 as soon as the booster returns to the pad, risking a potentially flyable spacecraft during the most risky Super Heavy tests?
SpaceX’s last year of operation suggests the company will choose caution and conduct wet test runs and static fires of 33 engines before and after laying, potentially doubling the number of tests required. One or more additional tests will also be required if SpaceX decides to gradually build up to 33 engines, an approach that suggests SpaceX will adopt all of the Booster 7 efforts to date.
Either way, the big challenge for SpaceX will be to have your ship fully assembled, ready to take off before end from November. If everyone significant problems arise during everyone from the several unprecedented tests outlined above, Musk’s anticipated schedule is likely to become impossible. As a wildcard, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has yet to issue a license or permit for orbital spacecraft experiments, each dependent on dozens of “mitigation”.
This does not mean that it is impossible to try to launch a spacecraft into orbit in November. But with the many issues Booster 7 and Ship 24 experienced during much simpler testing, it becomes increasingly unlikely that SpaceX will be ready to launch steam by the end of 2022.