Starship: Elon Musk’s giant rocket is approaching its maiden flight

Posted on January 13, 2023, 3:44 pm

It sits above the mist formed over the lagoon in Boca Chica, Texas. Perched 70 meters high, the Starship already seems impatient to extricate itself from this tongue of land located a few kilometers from the Mexican border.

SpaceX’s spacecraft was first assembled on its first Super Heavy stage in early 2023. The entire system sits 120 meters above the ground, higher than the largest rockets launched by SpaceX humans in seven decades of conquering space. And according to Elon Musk, its first orbital flight is imminent.

“Late February or March”

This Thursday, the richest man in the world posted a photo of the rocket on Twitter accompanied by a sober formula: “Attempt to launch Starship soon”. A few days earlier, he sounded a little more specific, saying that SpaceX has a “late February” trigger window, but that “a March attempt looks more likely.” Enough to stir up followers of the space sector, who have been waiting for several years for the launch of a launcher considered to be a revolution.

Starship is a concentrate of innovations: fully reusable, the system is designed both for human deep space exploration – to the Moon and Mars – and for putting satellites or other telescopes into orbit. The first stage’s 29 Raptor engines, using a mixture of oxygen and liquid methane, are expected to develop a take-off thrust of about 7,600 tonnes, more than double that of the Saturn V, the rocket used in the Apollo moon missions.

In the cargo configuration, the upper part of the vessel offers a space of 1,100 m3, larger than that offered at the time by the American space shuttle. The payload capacity exceeds 100 tons in low orbit, five times more than on the Ariane 5 and Falcon 9 rockets.

Starship was scheduled to fly in the summer of 2022

The concept is so radical and innovative that it was ridiculed profusely by the scientific community, who saw it as a science fiction device and not as the rocket of the future dreamed of by Musk. The spacecraft’s spectacular and repeated crashes during the first tests in the Earth’s atmosphere in the spring of 2021 had reinforced these mockery. Not enough to cool NASA, initial support from SpaceX, which selected Starship as the future lunar module for the Artemis missions.

All that’s left is to send it into orbit for good. And Elon Musk’s claims about an imminent takeoff should be taken with caution. In February 2022, the multibillionaire had already announced that the system would be ready “in a few months”. In June, he stated that Starship and Super Heavy would take off in July and that he planned to launch every month starting in August. He became much more low-key after that.

If the assembly of the system is indeed an important step, the new deadline still seems very optimistic. Captive tests will still be carried out on the vessel and on its first stage. And SpaceX has yet to obtain definitive approval from the FAA, the Constable of the United States Air Force, which studies the environmental impact of the company’s operations in the Boca Chica lagoon, protected as a refuge for biodiversity.

The Artemis program on hold

The countdown starts to get urgent. First for SpaceX, which relied on Starship and its large payload capacity to quickly complete the launch of its telecommunications constellation into Starlink low orbit. For NASA, then, which urgently needs to show that its audacity in choosing Elon Musk’s only firm to put its astronauts on the Moon – much criticized in the United States – was not political – financial suicide.

Seeing an American on the surface of the star in 2025, according to the official calendar, or in 2026, according to unofficial estimates, already seems very ambitious: even if the Starship flies in the coming months, it will take time to receive the green light to transport human lives.

In particular, it will have to demonstrate its ability to land and take off from the Moon, which was already the greatest challenge of lunar conquest in the time of Apollo. And it will still be necessary to develop rendezvous techniques in terrestrial orbit with other ships, for refueling, later with the Orion capsule in lunar orbit. Enough to give American space agency decision makers a few cold sweats.

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