SpaceX fires up Starship’s Raptor engine hours before huge regulatory milestone

SpaceX has fired up a full-scale Starship prototype for the fourth time in a little more than three weeks. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

SpaceX has fired up the same full-scale Starship rocket for the fourth time, igniting its Raptor engine less than an hour before the FAA officially published a launch license of the ship’s hop test debut.

The ignition marked the fourth time a Raptor engine has been fired up on Starship SN4 since May 5th, thankfully avoiding issues that caused fires and damage during the third and most recent engine test while also verifying that the ship and its Raptor are ready for their flight debut. In an apparent coincidence, the FAA published what serves as a license of Starship’s hop debut less than an hour after SN4 completed its latest test.

While not immediately obvious, this means that SpaceX has effectively surmounted a huge regulatory hurdle previously standing in the way of a full-scale Starship flight test campaign. Now, the path to Starship’s flight debut is just shy of wide-open.

Starship SN4, May 25th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Incredibly, the bureaucratic milestone SpaceX has thus passed may actually be bigger news than the Starship wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and Raptor engine ignition test the company completed earlier today, defying an unspoken law of spaceflight. This is because the license Starship received is completely different from the separate licenses SpaceX used for Starhopper’s first and second flight tests.

Starhopper was certified by the FAA as an experimental vehicle with experimental permits that are far more restrictive than those bestowed upon truly operational launch vehicles like Falcon 9 and Atlas V. For example, Starhopper’s experimental permits – like most others that the FAA has doled out – allowed for a single flight with a very strict ceiling. Launch licenses, of course, deal with operational rockets that must head to orbit or high altitudes on a recurring, semi-routine basis.

SpaceX has taken a major regulatory leap forward with a full FAA launch license for suborbital Starship launches. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

For the past few months, the general assumption has been that SpaceX would work with the FAA to retool its existing 150m (~500 ft) Starhopper launch permit to enable Starship SN4’s identical hop debut. In a total surprise, the FAA has instead issued a full launch license for Starship, meaning that SpaceX effectively has blanket permission for an indefinite number of minimally-restricted Starship flight tests until May 2022.

The only obvious qualifier is a note that the FAA has licensed SpaceX “to conduct suborbital reusable launch vehicle (RLV) missions”, meaning that a new license will obviously be needed for Super Heavy and orbital flight tests. Additionally, the license requires SpaceX to follow an unattached “ground track and trajectory” included as part of its FAA application, potentially restricting the kinds of launches the company can perform with it.

SpaceX Starship Prototype S… by Eric Ralph on Scribd

Thanks to Starship SN4’s apparently successful fourth static fire test and the acquisition of an unrestricted FAA suborbital launch license, SpaceX has effectively cleared all significant hurdles in the way of the first flight of a full-scale Starship. SN4 continues to perform admirably and even had ~25 metric tons (~55,000 lb) of stainless steel ballast installed just yesterday to counteract the impressive thrust of Raptor on its imminent hop debut.

Of course, CEO Elon Musk has heavily implied that Starship’s first flight will have to wait until after Crew Dragon’s inaugural NASA astronaut launch, currently scheduled no earlier than May 30th. Regardless, SpaceX appears to be ready for Starship to take flight, and with an FAA license secured, that milestone could come any day now.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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