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SpaceX teases progress towards Starship’s orbital launch debut

A recorded address from SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell to a graduating class of college seniors unexpectedly teased progress building the 35 Raptor engines that will power Starship’s imminent orbital launch attempt.

In a seemingly calculated move, the famous SpaceX executive’s prerecorded address included a glimpse of a screen on the factory floor tasked with tracking progress towards Starship’s first “orbital launch.” Featuring a basic graphic clearly depicting the aft ends of a Starship upper stage and Super Heavy booster, the display ultimate indicated that SpaceX has already “shipped” at least 11 of the almost three-dozen Raptor engines needed for the combined rocket’s first launch attempt.

Just three months ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed well-sourced reports from NASASpaceflight.com that the company was aiming to attempt Starship’s first orbital launch no later than July 2021. Two months later, regulatory documents revealed more concrete details for said launch attempt, indicating that Starship and Super Heavy’s first combined launch would see the ship spend some 80 minutes in space before reentering and splashing down off the coast of Hawai’i.

Not long after, Musk revealed that SpaceX boosted Super Heavy’s engine count from 28 to 29 and implied that even the first few orbital launch attempts would use a full complement of 29 engines. Combined with Starship’s three sea level and three vacuum-optimized Raptors and indications that the first one or more orbital-class ships and boosters will be expended without any recovery attempt, it became clear that SpaceX would need to radically expand Raptor production to meet such unprecedented demand for engines.

All Starships will require six Raptor engines. (SpaceX)
According to Musk, each Super Heavy booster will need 29 Raptors – eventually growing to 32 after a future upgrade. (SpaceX)

All told, SpaceX will need to manufacture, qualify, and deliver at least 35 Raptor engines to fully outfit every Starship and Super Heavy pair. If initial test flights are meant to expend both stages, that already exceptional challenge expands to require 35 engines for every launch attempt. Eventually, SpaceX’s goal is to manufacture hundreds of Raptor engines per year to outfit dozens of Starships and Super Heavy boosters, but Raptor only began full-scale integrated ground testing a little over two years ago.

Despite the challenges, SpaceX appears to be more than up to them and the display Shotwell walked past within the last month or two suggests that the company’s main Hawthorne, California factory has already “shipped” almost a third of the engines required for Starship’s inaugural orbital test flight. In this case, “shipped” likely means that those 11 engines have left the factory and headed to McGregor, Texas to be cleared for flight.

Several may already have made it through qualification testing and been delivered to Boca Chica – in fact, two new engines arrived at SpaceX’s Starship factory just last weekend. However, the rapid-fire arrival of dozens of Raptors will be unlike anything yet seen in Boca Chica. Altogether, SpaceX has sent a total of 30-35 Raptors to Boca Chica in the last two years. In the runup to Starship’s first orbital launch attempt, possibly as early Q3 2021, SpaceX will need to deliver ~35 Raptors in two months – an unprecedented influx of engines that will be easily tracked by the public.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of SpaceX’s calculated Starship launch teaser is the presence of a 25-day countdown, indicating that something is supposed to happen within the next two to four weeks. Given the display’s focus on “engines shipped,” the timer is likely counting down to an internal shipment target for the mission’s 35th and final engine. If SpaceX hits that target and Shotwell’s class address was recorded within the last week or so, all 35 orbital test flight Raptors could feasibly leave the factory floor by the end of the first full week of July, leaving a few weeks to finish qualification testing and ship each engine to Boca Chica before the end of the month.

If SpaceX can clear all 35 Raptors for flight by the end of July, it’s plausible that clean qualification testing could leave the first orbital-class Starship and Super Heavy booster ready for their launch debut in August or September – and almost certainly before the end of the year.

SpaceX teases progress towards Starship’s orbital launch debut
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