For the first time, SpaceX has shipped a vacuum-optimized Raptor engine to its Boca Chica, Texas Starship factory days after the company’s present reiterated plans for an inaugural orbital launch attempt as early as July.
Back in March 2021, CEO Elon Musk confirmed that he’d set SpaceX a goal of attempting Starship’s first orbital launch no later than the end of July – around four and a half months distant at the time. Fifteen weeks later, though the prospects of an orbital launch attempt happening in July have practically shrunk to zero, SpaceX COO and President Gwynne Shotwell – best known for acting as a more grounded foil to Musk’s often impractical schedule estimates – reiterated that the company is still “shooting for July” for Starship’s first orbital launch attempt.
As of late June, hitting that target would require SpaceX to string together numerous extraordinary feats of engineering and rocketry in record time or attempt some extremely unorthodox corner-cutting.
The launch pad and launch vehicle hardware needed for Starship’s first space shot are currently far from ready for flight. On June 24th, Musk unexpectedly revealed that the Super Heavy booster prototype SpaceX is now in the late stages of assembly isn’t actually the booster that will carry Starship on its first space launch attempt. In other words, though dozens of rings in various states of work are strewn about SpaceX’s Boca Chica factory, the company has yet to begin assembling the massive 65m (~215 ft) tall booster required for the first orbital launch attempt.
Using Super Heavy Booster 3 (B3) as a ruler, assembly could easily take 9-10 weeks – starting whenever the process actually begins. If SpaceX started stacking Booster 4 today, in other words, it’s unlikely that the rocket would even be complete by the end of August. Barring SpaceX taking unprecedented shortcuts, completing the booster is just part of the process of preparing for flight and B4 would still need to be qualified for flight, likely involving at least one cryogenic proof and static fire test.
In a best-case scenario where SpaceX begins assembly today, manages to halve Booster 4 assembly time in one fell swoop, the sneaks the second Super Heavy ever completed through qualification testing in a single week, the orbital flight test booster still wouldn’t be ready for Starship installation (likely another unprecedented first) before mid-August.
That would then leave SpaceX five or six weeks to fully assemble Starship S20, a process that has yet to begin. Like Starship SN15, which Musk said sported “hundreds of improvements”, Musk has also stated that Ship 20 and all after it will feature another batch of upgrades needed to take Starship orbital. Starship SN15 was very gradually stacked and assembled over the course of almost four months, though that slow assembly can likely be blamed on the fact that SpaceX is busy testing Starships SN8 through SN11 and was effectively waiting to see if any other major changes might be required.
While most of S20’s upgrades are a mystery, the ship’s thrust dome – spotted in work at Boca Chica earlier this month – has already confirmed that the prototype will be the first with the necessary hardware for Raptor Vacuum engine installation. That likely means that S20 will also be the first Starship to attempt to static fire six Raptor engines*, potentially producing more thrust than a Falcon 9 booster. On June 27th, one such vacuum-optimized Raptor (RVac) arrived in Boca Chica for the first time ever, making it clear that the comparatively brand new engine may already be ready to start integrated Starship testing.
*Update: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that the Raptor Vacuum delivered to Boca Chica on June 27th is, in fact, meant for Starship S20, seemingly confirming that the prototype will fly with a full six Raptor engines.
Of course, beyond Starship and Super Heavy, SpaceX also has a great deal of work left to get the rocket’s first orbital-class launch facilities partially operational. SpaceX will need to complete and activate at least one or two more custom-built propellant storage tanks, sleeve those three or four tanks with three or four massive thermos-like ‘shells,’ complete thousands of feet of insulated plumbing and wiring, finish a massive ‘launch table,’ install that table on a six-legged ‘launch mount;’ outfit that table and mount with an array of power, avionics, hydraulics, and fueling equipment and plumbing; complete a ~145m (~475 ft) ‘integration tower,’ and perform the first fit checks and shakedown tests with a real booster or Starship.
Only then will SpaceX be able to attempt Starship’s first space launch. All told, it might not be literally impossible for SpaceX to complete all the above work in less than five weeks, but it’s safe to say that the odds of that happening could probably make a lottery ticket blush. Regardless, if Starship reaches orbit at any point before the end of 2021, it would beat out simpler “next-generation” rockets like Ariane 6, ULA’s Vulcan, and Blue Origin’s New Glenn despite beginning concerted development years later and with a far less certain funding situation.