SpaceX’s high-altitude Starship launch debut unlikely before Crew-1

Starship SN8 completed a cryogenic proof of a small propellant tank located in the tip of its nose. Up next, a second static fire. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

Update: SpaceX canceled its November 5th and 6th Starship SN8 static fire test windows on Thursday, delaying the next Starship test window to November 9th unless additional testing is scheduled on the 7th and 8th.

As previously discussed, SpaceX requested three road closures for “Starship SN8 Static Fire and 15KM Flight” attempts on November 9th, 10th, and 11th on Wednesday. With recent cancellations, NASASpaceflight reporter Michael Baylor says that the odds that Starship SN8 will be ready to fly before SpaceX’s Crew-1 operational NASA astronaut launch debut (NET November 14th) are now minuscule, further indicating that each of the three upcoming test windows will be dedicated to one or more Raptor static fires.

Stay tuned for updates as SpaceX continues to prepare Starship for its most ambitious, challenging, and risky test yet.

In the form of road closure filings, SpaceX has effectively announced the first possible dates for Starship’s high-altitude launch debut, a high-risk test that CEO Elon Musk recently made clear could fail.

Per road closures published on SpaceX’s dedicated Cameron County, Texas page, Starship serial number 8 (SN8) could apparently be ready for its historic launch debut as soon as November 9th in a 12-hour window that opens at 9am CST (15:00 UTC). Identical 9am-9pm windows on November 10th and 11th will serve as backups in the event of one or several launch aborts or delays – fairly likely for a prototype as complex as Starship SN8.

However, several tests stand between SN8 and flight-readiness, further increasing the odds of delays as SpaceX continues to work out the kinks in what amounts to the first fully-assembly, functional Starship.

Musk has already stated that Starship SN8 will need to complete another Raptor static fire test – potentially with one, two, or three engines – before SpaceX will consider the rocket ready for its flight debut. Over the last few days, reporter Michael Baylor has noted on livestreams that multiple more static fire tests are actually in order before SpaceX will attempt to launch Starship SN8. It’s currently unclear what the purpose of those additional static fire tests is, given that SN8 has already completed a triple-engine Raptor static fire.

In the two weeks since that milestone, however, SpaceX did take a major step forward, mating Starship SN8’s nose section to create what is effectively the first full-scale, functional prototype. Aside from two smaller forward flaps and attitude control system (ACS) cold gas thrusters, that nose section also contains a small secondary liquid oxygen tank known as a header tank – meant to store a small amount of highly pressurized propellant to be used during Raptor reentry and landing burns. Several months back, Musk revealed that Starship SN4 completed a static fire while only feeding on fuel (liquid methane) stored in the rocket’s methane header tank, making it reasonable to assume that SpaceX wants to repeat a similar test with SN8 while using both fuel and oxidizer header tanks.

For Starship SN8, those header tanks will be an irreplaceable necessity during the rocket’s first attempted launch, free-fall, flip maneuver, and landing. In a clear sign of preparation for a header-tank-only static fire test, SpaceX appeared to successfully complete a cryogenic proof of Starship SN8’s newly-installed nose section and nose (LOx) header tank on November 3rd, verifying that liquid nitrogen – standing in for LOx – can be pumped more than 50 meters (~165 ft) from Starship’s launch mount to the tip of its nose to load said tank.

Starship SN8 awaits its launch debut, November 3rd, 2020. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

SpaceX has one more “SN8 nose cone cryo proof” test window scheduled from 8am to 5pm CST Thursday, November 5th that could be used for one or more of those expected static fire tests. Otherwise, SpaceX’s Starship SN18 15 km (~50,000 ft) launch closures were technically filed for an “SN8 Static Fire and 15 KM Flight,” allowing SpaceX to perform one or several static fires before attempting to launch. All things considered, the odds that Starship SN8 will launch on time between November 9th and 11th are probably less than 50:50, but there is definitely a chance.

SpaceX’s high-altitude Starship launch debut unlikely before Crew-1
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