Will the Starship be Ready for an April Launch?

It’s been a long road, but it looks as though SpaceX may finally be ready for an orbital flight test with the Starship and Super Heavy. After months of waiting, static fire tests, stacking, and restacking, Elon Musk announced on March 16th that SpaceX could be ready to go with the SN24 and BN7 prototypes in “a few weeks,” pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Musk announced via Twitter, saying, “launch timing depends on FAA license approval. Assuming that takes a few weeks, first launch attempt will be near end of third week of April, aka…”

Putting aside the thinly-veiled reference to 4/20, this estimate seems likely to happen and is consistent with recent activity at SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. First, there was the rollout of the SN24 Starship prototype in the early morning hours on Saturday, April 1st. This was followed two days later (Monday, April 3rd) with the BN7 Super Heavy booster prototype placed on the orbital launch mount, where crews began performing propellant load tests. These decisions indicated that the prototypes would be stacked and prepped for a launch attempt.

Then, on Tuesday, April 4th, the FAA issued a notice for a potential launch date of April 10th, with backup dates specified for April 11th and 12th. The buzz snowballed from there, with many posting about the likelihood of a launch on Easter Monday – the sixth day of Passover, the twentieth day of Ramadan, or whatever faith is being observed. SpaceX poured gasoline on this fire when, on April 6th, they tweeted images of the SN24 and BN7 stacked on the launch test pad with the caption:

“Starship fully stacked at Starbase. Team is working towards a launch rehearsal next week followed by Starship’s first integrated flight test ~week later pending regulatory approval.”

However, there have been a few indications that this would pass in favor of a later launch date (which appears to be the case). First, the FAA released a statement the same day the license was issued indicating that a decision had not been made. They further clarified that the notice they issued was not to be interpreted as a green light, saying, “The FAA has not made a license determination for the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy operation, and the FAA’s Command Center planning notice should not be interpreted as an indicator that a determination to issue a license has been made or is forthcoming.”

Eric Berger, acclaimed science author and Senior Space Editor at Ars Technica, also took to Twitter to address the growing hype and issue a few reality checks. First, he related how sources within SpaceX and NASA described the situation as it stood on April 4th, tweeting, “For what it’s worth SpaceX has told NASA it is targeting April 10, with backup days on April 11 and 12, for the Starship Orbital Flight Test. None of this is official without a launch license and the usual caveats apply.”

Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program. Credits: SpaceX

He followed this up by listing three pertinent points about the possible launch, indicating that a flight would happen later in the month. These included:

  1. Elon has been publicly pessimistic about launch dates of late, and April 10 is semi-real.
  2. A launch license was likely forthcoming, but there might be the risk of the FAA filing a civil suit for environmental reasons at the last minute (leading to a temporary injunction).
  3. SpaceX is very close to being ready technically, but it may take a few more days to review data. Barring legal action, a launch attempt will happen this month.

It seems pretty clear at this juncture that Monday (nor the rest of the week) will see the long-awaited orbital launch test. However, there is still the possibility that an attempt will happen on Monday, April 17th, according to an FAA Operations Plan Advisory statement issued on April 8th. While everything is contingent on the FAA giving the go-ahead, SpaceX appears to be as ready as it ever will be to make an orbital launch. This flight, if successful, will validate the totally-reusable super-heavy launch system, which NASA has contracted with SpaceX to provide Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis III mission.

The flight test will also open the door to SpaceX’s long-term promise of seeing regular payloads and crews to the Moon, providing intercontinental flights, and delivering Starlink V2 satellites to orbit. It will also bring the company one step closer to realizing the objective Musk has been preaching since he started the company over twenty years ago: to begin sending crewed missions to Mars to create the first self-sustaining city there. And it could all start before this month is over!

Further Reading: FAA