Starship Feb 2022
SpaceX showed off a completed Starship/Super Heavy vehicle in February, but that vehicle now appears unlikely to perform the first orbital launch attempt once the FAA awards a license to the company. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — NASA expects SpaceX to be ready to attempt a first orbital flight of its Starship vehicle, an essential element in the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration plans, as soon as early December, pending tests and regulatory approvals.

Speaking to the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee Oc. 31, Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for Artemis Campaign Development at NASA, said the agency’s understanding of progress on testing of the Starship vehicle, including its Super Heavy booster, supported an orbital launch attempt late this year.

“Right now, the schedule would lead to an early December test flight,” he said. The profile for that test flight would be the same as the company previously detailed in regulatory filings, with the Super Heavy booster and Starship lifting off from the Boca Chica, Texas, test site. Starship would go into orbit but almost immediately reenter, splashing down near Hawaii after completing less than one orbit.

That schedule is dependent on several upcoming milestones, including a static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster designated Booster 7. SpaceX has yet to fire all 33 Raptor engines simultaneously, having done tests of up to seven engines at a time as well as a “spin prime” test where the engines’ turbopumps are turned on and propellant flowed through the engines without igniting them.

It was during a spin prime test July 11 that SpaceX suffered what NASA euphemistically calls a “high-energy event” when propellants ignited underneath the booster, damaging it. SpaceX has repaired the booster and implemented corrective actions, according to the agency.

Holy moly. Well, that was unexpected!

— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) July 11, 2022

Kirasich said that test put “a relatively large amount of fuel” into a cloud of oxygen, triggering the detonation. “That was an operational and planning oversight. SpaceX, in the early days, goes for speed above systems engineering rigor,” he said, calling it a “pause and learn” event for SpaceX.

“They’ve since elevated the level of systems engineering put into each one of these tests, as well as brought in some new leadership into the team down there,” he said, resulting in “additional rigor” in subsequent tests.

That incident also attracted the attention of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. A member of the panel, Paul Hill, mentioned it at the panel’s Oct. 27 public meeting. “SpaceX is still pursuing an aggressive Starship development test plan, but this failure resulted in corrective actions to increase systems engineering and risk management rigor,” he said.

Kirasich said there are still several milestones before Starship will be ready for an orbital launch. That includes the static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines in Super Heavy as well as a full wet dress rehearsal where the Starship and Super Heavy vehicles are loaded with propellants and go through a practice countdown.

SpaceX also requires a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration for the mission. While the FAA cleared the way for Starship launches from Boca Chica with an environmental review in June, that review required SpaceX to implement more than 75 measures to mitigate the environmental effects of those launches. That licensing “is still ahead of us,” Kirasich said.

NASA is closely following preparations for the first Starship orbital launch because the agency sees it as the first in a series of tests of a vehicle the agency plans to use to land astronauts on the moon on Artemis 3 through its Human Landing System contract with SpaceX.

“We track four major Starship flights,” Kirasich said, starting with the first orbital launch. That’s followed by one to test propellant transfer in space, which is needed to refuel the Starship lunar lander, and a “longer duration” Starship mission, details of which he did not discuss. The fourth mission is the uncrewed lunar landing demonstration mission scheduled for late 2024.

He said those four tests were evenly spaced in the schedule back when the orbital launch was scheduled for this summer. “SpaceX has lost a number of months” because of the delays in that first orbital launch, he said, but didn’t state how it would affect the schedule of the latest tests the agency is following.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...