Flight delay: SpaceX now targeting April for first orbital launch

A view from Texas State Highway 4 of the SpaceX Launch Site at Starbase near Boca Chica Beach on March 30, 2022. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

SpaceX has again revised its timeline for when the first Starship orbital launch is likely to take place.

In early January, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said a March launch attempt from Boca Chica/Starbase appeared “highly likely,” though Musk revealed that April is the new target during a Morgan Stanley conference in San Francisco on March 7.

“We’re getting close for our first orbital test of Starship,” he said. “Hopefully in the next month or so we’ll have our first attempt. I’m not saying it’ll get to orbit, but I am guaranteeing excitement. It won’t be boring.”

Repeated timeline revisions are par for the course for SpaceX.

In this case, the company’s decision to install a massive water-deluge system to protect Boca Chica’s launch pad from the enormous heat and pressure of the Super Heavy BN7 booster’s 33 engines firing all at once may have played a role in the most recent delay.

SpaceX crews have also been installing shields to protect piping, control panels and other equipment in and around the orbital launch mount and affixing the last thermal tiles to the six-engine Starship SN24, which will sit atop the Super Heavy for the flight.

Electronic navigational buoys the company will use to cordon off a wide area of the Gulf to marine traffic during the flight are already on site at Boca Chica and waiting to be deployed.

The company conducted a successful “wet dress rehearsal” — everything leading up to the actual launch — on Jan. 23 and a static-fire test of 31 of BN7’s 33 engines on Feb. 9.

Super Heavy has roughly 2.5 times more thrust than the most powerful rocket in history, the Saturn V, which sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

SpaceX’s plan is for Super Heavy to separate from Starship a little over two minutes into the flight and land in the Gulf roughly 20 miles offshore. Starship would continue through the Straits of Florida and achieve orbit briefly before landing in the ocean inside the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility 60 miles north of Kauai, Hawaii.

The company is still waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to issue a launch license for the inaugural orbital flight, though SpaceX President Gywnne Shotwell said on Feb. 8 that she thinks the license will come through around the time Starship-Super Heavy — “Starship” collectively — is ready to launch.

Per a $2.9 billion contract with NASA, SpaceX is is developing Starship as the Human Landing System (HLS) that will put U.S. astronauts on the moon for the time in 50 years as part of NASA’s Artemis program.

NASA awarded the original contract in April 2021 and last November announced a $1.15 billion modified contract containing “Option B,” a more advanced iteration of the Starship HLS that would fly a second crewed demonstration moon landing.

Musk said March 7 that the chance of Starship actually reaching orbit the first time around is “greater than 50 percent,” while the odds of it happening sometime this year are maybe 80 percent.

“We’re building a whole series of Starships in South Texas. … It’ll probably take us a couple more years to achieve full rapid reusability, which, I can’t emphasize enough … is the profound breakthrough that is needed to extend life beyond Earth, because it lowers the cost of access to space by orders of magnitude,” he said.

Musk’s ultimate goal is for Starship to make it possible for humans to establish a permanent presence on the moon, Mars and beyond.

“If things go well … this vehicle could make life multi-planetary,” he said. “That’s a really big deal. It could make life on Mars real.”

Musk said one of the greatest tests of any civilization — not just human civilization — is “does that civilization become multi-planetary or not?”

He speculated whether achieving a multi-planetary existence would improve spaceflight to the point that humans could even become become multi-stellar, or able to travel to other star systems.

“I think we may discover that there are many long-dead, one-planet civilizations,” Musk said. “We don’t want to be one of those.”

He described Starship as a “very difficult program” and said designing a fully reusable orbital rocket is daunting due to the constraints of Earth’s atmosphere and strong gravity.

“It’s only barely possible to do this,” Musk said. “That’s why it’s not been done before.”