The SpaceX Starship could launch to orbit by late October, Elon Musk says

·3 min read
The SpaceX Starship vehicle  (SpaceX)
The SpaceX Starship vehicle (SpaceX)

The long awaited first orbital test flight of the SpaceXStarship spacecraft and Super Heavy booster could come as soon as late October, according to Company CEO Elon Musk, though he noted November was more likely.

In a post to the social media website Twitter on Wednesday, Musk responded to a question from another user to say the company would have two Starship craft and two boosters to work with by November.

Starship is a massive, reusable rocket upper stage and spacecraft designed, according to Musk’s many public statements on the vehicle, as a means of colonizing Mars, one 100 person compliment at a time. The 160 foot tall Starship is designed to sit atop the 230-foot-tall Super Heavy Booster, which is also reusable.

Together, the Super Heavy and Starship make up the largest, and most powerful launch vehicle ever constructed, more powerful even than the current iteration of Nasa’s massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which is itself on the cusp of an important first test flight. While SLS will generate 8 million pounds of thrust and is capable of lifting 95 tons of payload to low Earth orbit, Starship and the Super Heavy will generate 12 million pounds of thrust, according to SpaceX, and will be capable of lifting more than 100 tons into low Earth orbit.

But so far, Starship vehicles have only flown to low altitudes of around 40,000 feet above the Texas desert, launched from SpaceX’s “Starbase” facility in Boca Chica.

While Nasa hopes to launch a test flight of its SLS rocket by 27 September, and send the space agency’s Orion space capsule around the Moon before it splashes down under parachutes in the Pacific Ocean, SpaceX plans to launch Starship into orbit around Earth and make a controlled, powered landing somewhere near Hawaii.

Whether either big rocket will fly as intended is still an open question however. While Nasa has scrubbed two launches of the SLS in the past month due to technical challenges, SpaceX has been stymied by regulatory compliance issues and an environmental assessment — Musk was predicting an orbital test flight for Starship for sometime in March in early February 2022.

But in June, the US FAA issued a final decision in the environmental assessment of SpaceX’s launch operations at its facility in Texas. That assessment was the major non-technical hurdle to a Starship orbital test flight, and the FAA gave SpaceX the go ahead in June, providing the company also addressed 75 environmental impact mitigation actions spelled out by the FAA.

Although Nasa and SpaceX have both built very large rockets, they are not in direct competition. Nasa contracts with SpaceX to provide services, such as flying crew and cargo to the International Space Station with the company’s Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon spacecraft.

Nasa has good reason then to hope for a successful Starship flight, as the space agency has also contracted SpaceX to create a modified version of the Starship spacecraft to act as a lunar lander, the vehicle designated to ferry human astronauts to the surface of the Moon for Nasa’s Astemis III mission in 2025.