Little by little, SpaceX is getting closer to conducting the maiden orbital flight with its Starship and Super Heavy prototype! That was certainly the message Elon Musk conveyed on August 23rd when he posted an image via Twitter of the “Mechazilla” launch tower loading the fully-stacked prototype onto its launchpad at the SpaceX Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. From here, the six-engine SN24 Starship and the BN7 Super Heavy prototype (with its full complement of 33 Raptor engines) will launch, which could happen in just a few weeks.
Earlier this month, SpaceX conducted a single-engine test firing of the BN 7, which happened about a month after an “engine spin start test” resulted in a minor explosion on the launch pad. At the time, Musk stated that the BN7 would be “returning to the launch stand probably next week,” pending another inspection in the Starbase High Bay. The fact that the booster and spacecraft are now stacked and sitting on the launch pad together strongly suggests that SpaceX is just waiting for its launch license from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
It’s also possible that Musk hopes to conduct another round of static fire tests to see how the entire vehicle holds up under the stresses it will experience during launch. However, the last time that the Starship and Super Heavy were on the launch pad together was back in July after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finished its Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of the Starbase (and recommended corrective actions). As such, it seems likely SpaceX is confident with its test results and is gearing up for its Orbital Test Flight (OTF).
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According to previous filings with the FCC, the Orbital Test Flight (OTF) will consist of the SN24 and B7 launching together and separating about 170 seconds into flight. The booster element will then perform a soft landing at sea about 30 km (20 mi) from the Texas shoreline. The SN24 will reach a maximum altitude of 200 km (~125 mi) before making a soft landing roughly 100 km (62 mi) off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The total flight time will last about 90 minutes and, if successful, will validate the launch system for several mission profiles.
These include deploying Starlink V2.0 satellites into Low Earth Orbit (like a “Pez dispenser“), landing astronauts near the lunar south pole – the Starship Human Landing System (HLS) – as part of the Artemis III mission, and transporting crews and payloads to the Moon, Mars, and maybe beyond. Things are coming together, and the day when the Starship gets to make its inaugural flight to orbit!