Starship full stack
SpaceX says it's preparing for a final series of tests of its Starship vehicle before a first orbital launch attempt in the "coming weeks." Credit: SpaceX

SEATTLE — SpaceX and its chief executive, Elon Musk, say the first orbital launch attempt of its Starship vehicle is approaching, but the company must first overcome both technical and regulatory obstacles.

SpaceX tweeted Jan. 12 that it was moving ahead with a final series of tests of its Starship vehicle and Super Heavy booster at its Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The company installed a Starship vehicle called Ship 24 on top of a Super Heavy booster designated Booster 7 on the launch pad there Jan. 9.

Those tests, the company said, include a “full stack” wet dress rehearsal of the combined vehicle. That would be followed by a static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines on Booster 7, the first time all those engines have fired simultaneously.

Those tests would clear the way for an orbital launch attempt from a technical standpoint. SpaceX did not estimate when that launch could take place other than the “weeks ahead.”

Musk, though, has been more forthcoming. “We have a real shot at late February. March launch attempt appears highly likely,” he tweeted Jan. 7, responding to a person who cited a South Texas publication that claimed the launch was planned for the end of January.

However, SpaceX has missed several past estimates, by both Musk and others, regarding the schedule for the first Starship orbital launch. At an event in February 2022, with a fully stacked Starship as a backdrop, Musk estimated the vehicle would be ready to fly in “a couple months.”

At an advisory committee meeting in late October, a NASA official said he expected Starship to be ready for launch as soon as early December, after completing a wet dress rehearsal of the full vehicle and a 33-engine static-fire test of the booster. NASA is closely following the progress of Starship as it plans to use a version of the vehicle as a lunar lander for Artemis missions. SpaceX has received two NASA awards with a combined value of more than $4 billion to develop those landers.

It’s not clear why SpaceX missed both Musk’s forecast in February or the more recent NASA estimate. The company did suffer one notable testing setback in July when propellants underneath a Super Heavy booster ignited during a test, damaging the booster.

In addition to major technical milestones, SpaceX also needs a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration for an orbital Starship launch. The FAA completed an environmental review in June, allowing Starship orbital launches to proceed from Boca Chica but requiring the company to implement more than 75 measures to mitigate environmental effects.

Neither SpaceX nor the FAA have provided updates on the progress of implementing those mitigations or the status of a Starship launch license. However, the FAA, in statement to SpaceNews Jan. 12, said not all of the measures need to be completed before issuing a launch license.

“The timeframe for SpaceX to implement the more than 75 FAA required environmental mitigations for its Starship/Super Heavy program varies,” the agency said. “For example, some measures must be completed prior to launch while others are designed to occur during post-launch activities or following a mishap event. The FAA will ensure SpaceX complies with all required mitigations.”

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...