SpaceX Starship might skip early retirement for “hypersonic flight test”

In response to a Teslarati report on Starship SN16’s apparent transport to what amounts to a resting place for retired rockets, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that the vehicle may still have a shot at flight.

On June 16th, SpaceX technicians rolled Starship SN16 out of the Boca Chica factory’s high bay for the first time since the rocket was assembled to its full height. Measuring 9m (30′) wide, 50m (165′) tall, and some 100 to 200 metric tons (~220,000-440,000 lb) empty, SpaceX carefully moved the rocket from the build site to partially paved lot nearby, joining Starship SN15 in apparent retirement.

While SN15 had its three Raptor engines uninstalled and was removed from one of two suborbital launch mounts a few weeks ago despite Musk hinting at a possible reflight in the rocket’s future, neither Musk or SpaceX has confirmed that the only full-size flight-proven Starship has actually been retired.

Three weeks after it was transported there, Starship SN15 is still connected to a generator and gas supply, strongly implying that SpaceX is continuing to keep the rocket pressurized with nitrogen. That could just mean that the company wants to ensure that a keystone of Starship history survives until a proper permanent display stand can be set up but it could also imply that SpaceX wants to keep the option of reflight available for the time being.

Now, hours after Starship SN16 was rolled to the same area and entirely out of left field, CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX “might use SN16 on a hypersonic flight test.” Up to now, no Starship has traveled faster than a few hundred miles per hour and SpaceX’s high-altitude, three-engine prototypes appeared to actually reach their peak velocities while in an unpowered freefall – after powered flight, in other words. Even a basic supersonic flight would be new territory for the rocket.

Musk’s use of “hypersonic” implies that Starship SN16’s hypothetical flight test would reach a velocity at least five times the speed of sound (~1700 m/s or ~3800 mph) – at least a full magnitude faster than the next fastest Starship prototype. Based on the SpaceX CEO’s comment, it’s also safe to assume that Starship can reach hypersonic velocities under its own power – and likely only with three Raptor engines installed.

Starship SN16, May 28th. (Elon Musk)

Ultimately, given that Musk also stated that Starship SN15 “might” launch a second time, it’s impossible to gauge how likely it is that SN16 will ever attempt a “hypersonic flight test” or fly at all. While it would be undoubtedly spectacular, the prototype would likely need a week or more of preparation and testing at the suborbital launch pad, testing that would require employees to evacuate the area and thus directly delay work on SpaceX’s orbital launch site.

Only time will tell if SpaceX decides to take a slight detour before Starship’s first orbital launch attempt, scheduled as early as a few months from now. Stay tuned!

SpaceX Starship might skip early retirement for “hypersonic flight test”
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