Update (Dec 9th): All signs point to a second attempt at SpaceX’s high-altitude Starship launch debut sometime near the end of today’s window, likely no earlier than 3:30-4 pm CST (UTC-6).
Amazingly, the actual pilot of the NASA WB-57 reconnaissance aircraft tasked with capturing aerial photos and videos of Starship SN8’s first flight is on Twitter and confirmed that the aircraft had been just a few minutes from takeoff before SpaceX chose to delay the launch for a few more hours. Thankfully, as of 2 pm CST, ground equipment activity at the pad is rapidly picking up – a good sign that SN8 launch preparations are well underway.
Stay tuned for SpaceX’s official Starship SN8 launch livestream around five minutes before liftoff and tune into NASASpaceflight.com’s excellent coverage below to keep up to date on launch proceedings.
Update: Starship serial number 8 (SN8) aborted its high-altitude launch debut at the last second, ending today’s attempt for SpaceX.
Depending on why one or several of the steel rocket’s three advanced Raptor engines aborted their ignition, SpaceX has backup launch windows and airspace closures from 8am to 5pm CST (UTC-6) on December 9th and 10th. Stay tuned for updates on the cause of the abort and whether Starship SN8 can be prepared for another attempt less than a day from now.
In a last-minute surprise, SpaceX appears to have secured NASA support for Starship SN8’s first flight in the form of a space agency reconnaissance jet often used to capture aerial photos and videos of spaceflight events.
Primarily intended to capture those views for developmental, data-gathering purposes, NASA WB-57 jets have recently been used to milestones like SpaceX’s explosive Crew Dragon In-Flight Abort test and Demo-2 astronaut launch/reentry debut. Likely made possible by a $135 million Starship Moon lander development contract awarded by NASA in April, the space agency has positioned itself to benefit from SpaceX’s success and leverage the company’s extensive internal investments.
Aside from exemplifying NASA’s new and promising relationship with SpaceX’s Starship development program, the use of space agency surveillance assets also serves as a convenient barometer to judge Starship SN8’s launch timing with.
As of publishing (1:30 pm EST, UTC-5), NASA’s WB-57 jet is scheduled to take off from Houston’s Ellington Airport at 2:12 pm CST, arriving ‘on station’ in the vicinity of SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas launch pad around 3:10 pm. With NASA assets now in play, Starship SN8 is unlikely to lift off before the jet is in place, meaning that the rocket’s 12.5 km (~7.8 mi) launch debut is now scheduled sometime between ~3:15 pm and 5 pm CST (UTC-6).
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently reiterated his prediction that Starship SN8 has a ~33% chance of successfully launching, reaching an apogee of ~12.5 km, free-falling belly-first most of the way back to earth, performing a radical flip maneuver, and landing intact. With Starship SN9 – effectively a refined clone of SN8 – practically complete and ready to roll to the launch pad, SpaceX’s hardware-rich development program means that almost any SN8 outcome at all will produce valuable data.
For a program like Starship, the success of any early prototype is better judged on the quantity and quality of data gathered and lessons learned than on the survival of hardware. Even so, SpaceX is clearly working to give Starship SN8 the best possible shot at survival and a successful landing would be a truly spectacular outcome. Stay tuned for updates as we track towards SN8’s first flight!