FLYING Magazine

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has not enjoyed a great track record when it comes to predicting the second orbital test flight of Starship, the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. But Musk’s assertion this week—that the 400-foot-tall Starship upper stage and Super Heavy booster could fly again as soon as Friday—looks like it could come true.

“Was just informed that approval to launch should happen in time for a Friday launch,” Musk wrote in a post on his social media platform X, formerly Twitter. The SpaceX CEO did not elaborate on who gave him that timeline.

Was just informed that approval to launch should happen in time for a Friday launch

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 14, 2023

In mid-June, Musk predicted Starship would return to flight in “six to eight weeks,” a deadline that has long since passed. Then in September, the SpaceX chief said the massive rocket is “ready to launch, awaiting FAA license approval,” to which the FAA responded that the company is very much still under investigation for Starship’s maiden voyage in June.

This time, however, Musk’s timeline appears to be supported by FAA documentation.

According to an air traffic control advisory on the agency’s website, a launch and reentry mission, “Space X Starship Super Heavy Flt 2,” will take place in Boca Chica, Texas—the site of SpaceX’s Starbase launch pad—on Friday. Backup dates are listed as Saturday and Sunday.

Final Steps

Starship’s reappearance on FAA documentation is a promising sign. However, SpaceX will still need to obtain a modified launch license to fly this week. It appears that hasn’t happened just yet, but the company is very close.

In response to an inquiry from FLYING, the FAA said it has “no update” since its October 31 statement on SpaceX in which the agency confirmed it had completed the safety review portion of its Starship license evaluation. A modified license cannot be granted until the evaluation is finished.

The announcement came with the caveat that the agency is still working through an environmental review, which a spokesperson told FLYING is the “last major element” of the process. That step requires coordination with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to produce an updated biological assessment of the potential impacts of a Starship launch on the surrounding environment.

But Aubry Buzek, who runs public affairs for USFWS’s Texas office, told FLYING that the agency’s formal consultation with the FAA concluded on Tuesday, clearing the way for a license modification.

According to USFWS, the environmental assessment focused on a new water deluge system that was installed on Starbase to shield the launch pad from the flames of Starship’s 33 Raptor engines. In April, the engines blew a massive crater under the launcher and scattered ash and debris as far as the town of Port Isabel, about 6 miles away.

Starbase did not have such a system for Starship’s inaugural launch, which may have contributed to the damage. Musk said plans to install a water-cooled steel plate beneath the launcher were scrapped because it “wasn’t ready in time,” adding that “we wrongly thought, based on static fire data, that Fondag [concrete] would make it through one launch.”

With the ball back in the FAA’s court, SpaceX is on the brink of obtaining a modified Starship launch license. A second test flight could follow just a few days later—the first one came less than a week after the FAA’s initial green light.

As was the case with that launch, Starship’s second test flight will be broadcast live on SpaceX’s website. In addition to the new flame deflector system, it will debut a hot-stage separation system and thrust vector control system for the Super Heavy booster engines.

The flight itself is expected to last about 90 minutes, with the Starship upper stage splashing down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

High Stakes

Plenty is riding on the success of the next Starship test flight. NASA picked SpaceX to develop a version of the rocket that will land humans on the moon for the first time in half a century during the Artemis III mission, which is scheduled for 2025. Before then, the company will fly an uncrewed demonstration mission to the moon.

But NASA officials are already “concerned” about the number of test flights Starship must complete even before that demonstration. A top NASA manager said Artemis III will “probably” slip to 2026 as a result.

A delay to Artemis III could throw a wrench into NASA’s other mission timelines. The space agency has already enlisted SpaceX to conduct a second crewed landing demonstration in 2027 as part of the subsequent Artemis IV mission. The goal is to develop a lander “that meets NASA’s sustaining requirements for missions beyond Artemis III,” such as docking with the upcoming Gateway space station and accommodating up to four crew members.

Following Artemis, SpaceX said the ultimate objective for Starship is to ferry hundreds of humans at a time to the moon, Mars, and beyond. Musk himself has claimed the firm will land humans on Mars by 2029. The plan is for the first batch of astronauts to set up a small base, with the aim of one day supporting a colony of 1 million earthlings on the “Red Planet.”

For fans of science fiction, it’s an exciting prospect. To get there, SpaceX will first need to prove Starship can reach orbit without exploding, but the hope is for that litmus test to happen in the next few days.

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The post Elon Musk Says SpaceX Starship Could Launch Friday—and He May be Right This Time appeared first on FLYING Magazine.

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