SpaceX Plans First Orbital Flight for Starship

In the wake of the first fully successful high-altitude test flight of a Starship prototype, SpaceX has filed plans for an orbital test with the Federal Communications Commission. The orbital test flight will launch from its test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, and splash down somewhere near Hawaii.

Since SpaceX began high-altitude testing for Starship, it has lost four prototypes in explosions during or shortly after landing. The last one, SN11, appeared to go through an unplanned “mini-launch” minutes after what had initially looked like a successful landing, and then exploded. The SN11 incident was blamed on residual fuel escaping through a flaw in the engine system. The explosions resulted in some unwelcome attention from the FAA, which investigated potential safety violations related to the incidents.

Since then, SpaceX has made upgrades to the SN15 prototype based on data from the previous flights. It successfully conducted a flight test and returned the prototype intact on May 5.

The orbital test flight will launch the Starship vehicle on a Super Heavy booster, which will separate and come down about 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The test Starship spacecraft will continue into orbit, and then come down about 100 kilometers (62 miles) off the coast of Kauai. The entire test is expected to last 90 minutes.

SpaceX plans to coordinate with the FCC, NASA, FAA, and the U.S. Space Force for the test. Although an exact date for the test has not yet been announced and is likely pending regulatory approval, Elon Musk has said that he would like to conduct it by July.

In internal company communications dating as far back as June 2020, Elon Musk has indicated to SpaceX employees that Starship development is a priority that should be accelerated “dramatically and immediately.” He indicated in a company-wide email at the time that the Starship should take second place only to improving safety for the Crew Dragon, which was preparing for the Demo-2 mission at the time.

Musk intends Starship to serve as the interplanetary transportation system for crewed missions to the Moon and Mars. NASA selected a derivative officially referred to as the Human Landing System for the Artemis Program, though this is currently being challenged by competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-MI) has since proposed boosting NASA’s budget enough to allow it to continue with two proposals, which NASA had originally planned on doing.  

Musk’s plans for Mars include establishing a settlement using the Starship rocket to transport cargo and people. The plan calls for sending as many as 1,000 Starships with passengers to the red planet. Although Elon Musk has acknowledged that such a venture would be highly risky, he is also known for saying, “I would like to die on Mars, just not on impact.”

He has also proposed using Starship to clean up some “space junk” and for point-to-point transportation on Earth. Any marketing professionals that SpaceX hires in the future are likely to have some fun with the latter: “Anywhere to anywhere in 90 minutes or less!” Starship simply needs to get past the testing and development phase with, preferably, fewer explosions.