SpaceX’s orbital Starship launch debut could still happen this year

A senior SpaceX engineer and executive believes that Starship's first orbital launch could still happen by the end of 2020. (SpaceX)

Despite the spectacular demise of a full-scale prototype just days ago, a senior SpaceX engineer and executive believes that Starship could still be ready for its first orbital launch attempt before the end of the year.

Even if the first launch attempt fails, that milestone – if realized – would be one of the single biggest upsets in the history of spaceflight, proving that Saturn V-scale orbital-class rockets can likely be built in spartan facilities with common materials for pennies on the dollar. Much like Falcon 1 suffered three launch failures before successfully reaching orbit, there’s a strong chance that Starship’s first shot at orbit will fall short, although each full-up launch failure would likely cost substantially more than the current prototypes being routinely tested to destruction in South Texas.

Most recently, what CEO Elon Musk later described as a “a minor test of a quick disconnect” went wrong in a spectacular fashion, causing a major liquid methane leak that subsequently ignited and created a massive explosion. Although Starship SN4 did technically complete its fifth Raptor engine static fire test just a minute or so prior, the ship and its immediate surroundings were obliterated by the violent explosion, leaving little more than steel shrapnel and the broken husk of a launch mount behind. It’s in this context that one of SpaceX’s most levelheaded, expert executives believes that an orbital launch could still happen this year.

A senior SpaceX engineer and executive believes that Starship’s first orbital launch could still happen by the end of 2020. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

While Starship SN4’s demise and the continued possibility of the ship’s orbital launch debut occurring less than seven months from now may seem at odds with each other, that’s actually just a side effect of the approach SpaceX has always taken when developing brand new rockets and spacecraft. Following the lead of the scrappy teams that used the exact same methods to design, test, and fly the massive Saturn rockets that took humans to the Moon, SpaceX has always preferred to learn by doing.

Inevitably, testing minimum viable products to their limits will lead to failures, but those failures are actually extremely valuable so long as they are extensively analyzed and learned from. That’s exactly what SpaceX has been doing for the last six or so months with full-scale Starship prototypes: building, testing, failing, and improving in an unending cycle. Built slowly with inferior methods, Starship Mk1 almost immediately during its first pressure test in November 2019. SpaceX took that failure, extracted all the insight it could, and dramatically improved its production methods before completing Starship SN1 barely three months later.

On November 20th, 2019 Starship Mk1 burst during its first major cryogenic pressure test. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
In January, SpaceX built and tested two ‘test tanks’ to failure. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starship SN01 failed on February 28th because of a faulty ‘thrust puck’, later rectified with a third test tank that became the first to survive pressure testing just 10 days later.(NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starship SN3 was destroyed by an improper test procedure on April 3rd. (LabPadre)
Starship SN4 marked the most recent failure during SpaceX’s hardware-rich development program.

Prior to SN1, SpaceX built and tested two stout test tanks to failure, ultimately achieving pressures of ~8.5 bar – sufficient for reliable human spaceflight – with the second tank on January 30th, 2020. On February 28th, Starship SN1 was unfortunately destroyed by a faulty ‘thrust puck’ (Raptor engine mount). Just 10 days later, SpaceX successfully tested a third ad-hoc test tank, proving that it had already rectified the engine section design flaw. Hardware isn’t always the only problem, however, and Starship SN3 was destroyed by human operator error during a cryogenic proof test on April 3rd.

Starship SN4 was completed and moved to the launch pad less than a month later and began testing just a few days after that, quickly racking up milestones as it became the first full-scale prototype to pass cryogenic proof testing, perform a wet dress rehearsal (WDR) with real propellant, fire up a Raptor engine, and complete a more ambitious cryogenic pressure test. Prior to the ground systems fuel leak that killed it, SN4 was possibly just days away from attempting the inaugural flight of a full-scale Starship prototype.

With Starship SN4 now steel confetti, Starship SN5 – effectively complete – will likely take over where its predecessor left off, heading to the launch pad within the next week or so before attempting a cryogenic pressure test and Raptor static fire to clear it for flight. Per Koenigsmann, that flight debut could come just a few weeks from now – likely before the end of June if replacement ground equipment can be quickly completed. If Starship SN5 survives that hop debut, it may ultimately be upgraded with a nosecone, flaps, and two additional Raptor engines to perform a dramatic 20 km (~12 mi) flight, capped with a supersonic skydiver-style reentry and landing test.

Once that capability has been successfully demonstrated, Super Heavy development and orbital Starship operation and reentry are the next critical hurdles. If Koenigsmann is correct, it’s safe to say that the first fully heat-shielded Starships and the beginnings of the first one or several Super Heavy booster prototypes will begin to appear in South Texas within the next few months.

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SpaceX’s orbital Starship launch debut could still happen this year
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