Via FCC regulatory filings, SpaceX has revealed the first concrete details about Starship and Super Heavy’s first orbital flight test.
Earlier this year, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed a shocking NASASpaceflight.com report that the company was working to launch Starship into orbit by July 2021 – the achievement of which would be nothing short of miraculous. Less than two months later, SpaceX has submitted a request for FCC permission to communicate with Starship and Super Heavy before and during an inaugural “orbital test flight” scheduled no earlier than (NET) June 20th.
Oddly, the FCC application indicates some truly unusual plans relative to the rest of SpaceX’s intensive Starship test and launch campaign.
“The Starship Orbital test flight will originate from Starbase, TX. The Booster stage will separate approximately 170 seconds into flight. The Booster will then perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore. The Orbital Starship will continue on flying between the Florida Straits. It will achieve orbit until performing a powered, targeted landing approximately 100km (~62 miles) off the northwest coast of Kauai in a soft ocean landing.“
SpaceX FCC STA Request – 13 May 2021
In short, Starship’s first orbital launch attempt aims to send an expendable prototype into space for a brief 90-minute, one-orbit spaceflight, meaning that Starship will travel once around Earth before perform a deorbit burn and attempt its first reentry. If everything goes according to plan, which is far from guaranteed, that Starship prototype will perform “a soft ocean landing” 100 km (62 mi) off the coast of the Hawaiian island Kauai. Back in the Gulf of Mexico, SpaceX’s first flightworthy Super Heavy booster will launch much like Falcon 9, separate from Starship, perform a flip and boostback burn towards Texas, and “land approximately 20 miles [32 km] from the shore.”
SpaceX says the FCC STA request is meant to “authorize Starship test vehicle communications from the launch pad at Boca Chica TX and the experimental recovery operation” following the launch but makes no reference to recovery assets in the Gulf of Mexico, leaving it ambiguous whether the first flown Super Heavy will be recovered or also perform a “soft ocean landing.” To maximize speed, choosing not to attempt to recover the first orbit-proven Starship is a logical choice for SpaceX, especially given that a fully successful orbital launch, coast, and reentry on the first attempt is a tall order.
Super Heavy, however, will be performing a maneuver virtually identical to the Falcon booster landings SpaceX has aced 75+ times over the last five years. Notably, in an included “timeline of events” for the orbital launch, SpaceX refers to Super Heavy’s landing as a “touchdown,” whereas Starship’s “soft ocean landing” is referred to as a “splashdown,” raising hopes that the booster will attempt to land on an unspecified platform a few dozen miles off the Texas coast.
Given SpaceX’s requested “operation start date” on June 20th, we wont have to wait long to find out. At the moment, SpaceX has yet to even begin stacking the first flightworthy Super Heavy booster prototype, so that NET June 20th target is far more likely to slip into July or August. Regardless, an orbital Starship launch of any kind before the end of 2021 would be nothing short of an engineering and program management tour de force for SpaceX. Stay tuned for updates as SpaceX’s orbital launch pad, Starship prototype, and booster continue to progress towards flight-readiness.