Starship destack
The Ship 24 Starship vehicle is removed from its Super Heavy booster Jan. 25 as SpaceX prepares to conduct a static-fire test of all 33 engines in the booster as soon as next week. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — SpaceX could attempt a long-awaited static-fire test of all 33 Raptor engines in its Super Heavy booster as soon as next week, one of the final technical milestones before an orbital launch attempt, a company executive said Jan. 27.

Speaking on a panel at the AIAA SciTech Forum, Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability, said the company was preparing for the test at its Starbase test site at Boca Chica, Texas.

“If things go well, maybe next week we’ll have a 33-engine static fire,” he said. “We still have a lot of work in front of us to get there and it’s not easy.”

He didn’t elaborate on the work remaining before the test and the panel, devoted to examining the relationship of science fiction with aerospace, did not return to the topic. However, the company was starting to get ready for the static fire after a Jan. 23 test called a wet dress rehearsal where both the Super Heavy booster, called Booster 7, and the Starship upper stage, named Ship 24, were loaded with propellants and taken through a practice countdown.

SpaceX destacked the Starship from the Super Heavy Jan. 25, a move that the company said was part of preparations for the static fire. “Launch and catch tower destacked Ship 24 from Booster 7 on the orbital pad today ahead of the Booster’s static fire test,” the company tweeted.

According to Cameron County, Texas, where Boca Chica is located, there are road closures planned for Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 on the highway leading to Starbase, although the county did not disclose the reason for the closures other than “non-flight testing.” It is not uncommon, though, for such closures to be canceled on short notice depending on SpaceX’s plans. A closure planned for Jan. 30 was canceled Jan. 27.

Both the company and NASA, which is monitoring Starship test activities given the vehicle’s use in the agency’s Artemis lunar exploration campaign, had identified both the wet dress rehearsal and the 33-engine static-fire test as two major remaining milestones before the vehicle is ready, at least technically, for an orbital launch. SpaceX still needs a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration before it can conduct a launch.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted earlier in the month that he thought the company could be ready for an orbital launch as soon as late February, with March “highly likely.” However, SpaceX has missed past schedule estimates he has offered on Starship’s first orbital flight.

First launches of new vehicle are inherently risky, a concern magnified by the sheer scale of Starship. Gerstenmaier, while not directly addressing the specific risks of a Starship launch on the panel, noted that all launches carry some degree of risk.

“Every launch has a high risk associated with it. I don’t fear the failure, but what are we going to learn from this launch and are we taking this risk for a certain benefit?” he said. “So, I trade that benefit of what we’re going to get out of this activity versus the cost of doing the activity, and what is the potential for learning.”

Starship is essential not just for NASA’s plans to return humans to the Moon but also SpaceX’s deployment its second-generation Starlink constellation and, ultimately, sending humans to Mars. “We’re going to try and take that vision, that future vision we’ve seen in science fiction,” Gerstenmaier said, “and we’re going to try to turn it into reality.”

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...