SpaceX’s Starship rocket program just had one of its best nights yet

Before dawn on May 4th, SpaceX successfully fueled a full-scale Starship prototype and (partially) tested an installed Raptor engine for the first time ever – perhaps the Starship program’s best night yet.

While just a small test relative to what’s soon to come, the milestone is still an extremely significant one for SpaceX and its next-generation launch vehicle. Designed to launch atop the Super Heavy booster, both Starship and its booster are meant to be fully reusable, potentially making the launch system one of the cheapest in operation on Earth. Despite that unprecedented full reusability, they should still be able to place dozens (perhaps up to 100-150+) metric tons of payload into orbit in a single launch.

To get to that point, however, SpaceX must develop and demonstrate a cornucopia of technologies and approaches – most of which are unprecedented – at a scale unmatched by ever other launch vehicle in history, save two or three. It was perhaps the most fundamental of those steps that was on the table earlier this morning.

Perhaps the single most important and uncertain part of SpaceX’s ambitious Starship architecture, SpaceX’s May 4th wet dress rehearsal (WDR) was mainly a test of Starship’s overall structure and the manufacturing apparatus SpaceX has created to build it. Despite how exotic and challenging some of Starship’s goals may sound, SpaceX’s approach to production for its newest launch vehicle is arguably the single biggest risk for the program.

Notably, CEO Elon Musk says that the ultimate goal is to roll out a single finished Starship rocket every single week and at a cost of something like $5-10 million per vehicle. Including the Super Heavy booster, the production goals of which remain unknown, SpaceX effectively wants to mass-produce dozens of fully-reusable rockets – all larger (and potentially more capable) than NASA’s Saturn V Moon rocket – for anywhere from a tenth to a hundredth of the cost.

Part of SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas Starship factory is pictured here on March 19th, 2020. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

As if those goals weren’t ambitious enough, SpaceX intends to achieve them with perhaps the most spartan, minimalist factory ever attempted for orbital-class rockets. At the moment, all Starship hardware built by SpaceX to date has been manufactured in a series of tents, more recently graduating to a trio of warehouse-sized sprung structures. A large hangar – apparently dedicated to building pad infrastructure – is just shy of complete, while a separate windbreak structure and a vertical assembly building (VAB) are used to stack (assemble) full-scale Starship subsections built inside tents.

Unlike almost every other launch vehicle in history, Starship production – excluding its Raptor engines and certain other subassemblies and parts – is done in tents and is almost entirely divorced of the clean room operations rocket factories are famous for. Despite the extensive use of hand-welded seams and parts on SpaceX’s early Starship prototypes, the company has already proven that it’s well on its way to building Starships in just a week or two.

Starship SN3 was finished (more or less) on March 26th. (Elon Musk)
Starship SN4 was finished and transported to the launch pad on April 23rd, less than a month later. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Meanwhile, Starship SN5 will probably be ready to roll to the launch pad as early as next week, although it may have to wait a bit longer than that if Starship SN4 survives testing.

While it appears that SpaceX only performed a partial wet dress rehearsal with liquid methane and oxygen and completed a test of part of Starship SN4’s installed Raptor engine (known as the preburner), it means that a Starship has survived a truly launch vehicle-like procedure for the first time ever. In other words, Starship SN4’s May 4th success served as SpaceX’s most important verification yet that its exotic Starship manufacturing approach could be viable for building actual orbital-class rockets.

Up next, SpaceX will attempt to perform a full wet dress rehearsal (WDR) and a static fire test of Starship SN4 and its lone Raptor engine. That test attempt could come as soon as this evening.

SpaceX’s Starship rocket program just had one of its best nights yet
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