In a rock-solid sign of SpaceX’s confidence in Starship, the company has filed plans to roll the second fully assembled prototype – known as serial number 9 (SN9) – to the launch pad days after SN8’s first launch and (crash) landing.
According to a public road closure request submitted by SpaceX less than 24 hours after Starship SN8’s spectacular debut, the company intends to transport Starship SN9 and a large crane from the factory to the launch pad as early as Monday, December 14th.
On the heels of such a successful high-altitude launch debut, even highly optimistic (but well-sourced) hints from several reporters seem to fall short of SpaceX’s plans to prepare the next ship for testing as few as five days later.
Unlike SN8, which was sent tank section only to the launch pad and put through a month of several major tests before a tricky in-situ nosecone installation operation, Starship SN9 was fully assembled at SpaceX’s build site. While still incredibly impressive as the first large flightworthy rocket in history to complete major structural integration work at a launch pad, fully exposed to the elements, the challenge added complexity and delayed SN8’s launch schedule.
The in situ installation was only needed because of Starship SN8’s role as a pathfinder and fleet leader. Testing the vehicle prior to SpaceX’s first true nosecone installation attempt reduced both the schedule risk and cost of a potential failure during the first multi-engine Raptor static fire. After SpaceX confirmed that SN8 – also the first prototype built mainly out of a different 304L steel alloy – was meeting expectations and performing well, nosecone installation was greenlit.
Thanks to eight (mostly) successful cryogenic proof and static fire tests SN8 completed, as well as the rocket’s nearly flawless launch debut, SN9’s path to testing and flight is dramatically simpler. Assuming that the “low-pressure fuel header tank” responsible for Starship SN8’s failed landing is relatively simple to fix, Starship SN9 could feasibly require just a single ‘cryo proof’ and static fire test before its first launch attempt.
If SN9’s proof tests go smoothly and the low-pressure header tank bug can be easily fixed, it’s entirely conceivable that SpaceX could be ready to attempt a second high-altitude Starship launch before the end of the year. Stay tuned!