SpaceX Tests Engines on Starship Booster

SpaceX tested more than 30 engines on the Starship booster as part of preparations for a planned orbital test of its biggest spacecraft yet. 31 of the 33 engines performed well in the static test.

According to Elon Musk, technicians turned off one of the engines and the other deactivated on its own. SpaceX said the 31 remaining engines fired for the full duration of the test.

Having that many smaller engines on the heavy lifter can provide extra redundancy in case one or two of them fail. Musk said the Super Heavy booster would have still made it into orbit.

SpaceX has had the orbital test in the works for a while now. It had originally planned to conduct the test during the summer of 2021. However, the test was repeatedly pushed back, primarily due to regulatory red tape. The FAA kept throwing up obstacles like required environmental impact reviews and the sheer number of comments it received about the test – often frustrating Elon Musk, who expressed impatience with the process.

Musk has occasionally aimed barbs at the FAA during its investigations into matters like four Starship prototypes in a row going up in flames. He accused the FAA of using an outdated regulatory model that assumed that most space launches would have been organized by government agencies. SpaceX did eventually manage to conduct a high-altitude test and keep the prototype intact.

SpaceX could launch Starship on its orbital test as early as March 1. The orbital test will involve launching an uncrewed Starship prototype from SpaceX’s Boca Chica test facility on a Super Heavy rocket. If everything goes as planned, the prototype will complete nearly one orbit and splash down just off the Hawaiian coast.

Elon Musk seems to anticipate that there is a high chance that something will go wrong. However, he promised that at least the test won’t be boring.

SpaceX plans to use Starship to launch payloads to other worlds like the Moon and Mars. Musk has said that it could have people on Mars as early as 2030. Of course, one should always add a few years to a Musk timeline.

Starship can also deliver heavier payloads into orbit. It could also potentially deliver critical supplies for humanitarian and military missions to any point on Earth. The Pentagon has showed interest in Starship for providing rapid point-to-point delivery of supplies.

A Starship-derived lunar lander will land astronauts on the lunar surface for NASA’s Artemis Program. Concept art makes it look like a 1950s-era science fiction rocket that could land on another world’s surface and then take off again. (NASA did exactly that for the Apollo program in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, the Apollo lunar lander looked more like something out of a real-world version of Atari’s “Space Invaders” than a rocket.) NASA plans to include SpaceX’s lunar lander on Artemis III.

Starship will also be available for privately organized missions. Dennis Tito booked a ride to the Moon on one. The dearMoon mission will also use Starship.

SpaceX president Gwynn Shotwell took over management of Starship, likely to troubleshoot some issues that weren’t being publicly aired. The FAA could simply have been one of several obstacles holding it up. The static test of its engines could indicate that it’s beginning to get back on track – of course, assuming that it actually manages to get off the ground in March.