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SpaceX’s Starship update comes at a critical time for the program

Elon Musk last provided a Starship update in September 2019 in South Texas.
Enlarge / Elon Musk last provided a Starship update in September 2019 in South Texas.

Trevor Mahlmann for Ars

SpaceX founder Elon Musk will host a “Starship presentation” on Thursday evening in South Texas at the company’s launch and production site.

This will be Musk’s first comprehensive update on the vehicle’s progress toward launch, and plans for once it is operational, since September 2019. SpaceX has made enormous progress on the Super Heavy rocket and Starship upper stage since that time, but some critical questions remain. The presentation will certainly be livestreamed by the company, and Ars will be on hand for the event.

Here, then, are some of the biggest things we’re looking for.

Is Starship ready for flight?

This week engineers and technicians at the South Texas facility, which SpaceX calls Starbase, will stack a Starship vehicle on top of a Super Heavy booster. The Starship will be “Ship 20.” There haven’t quite been 19 previous Starship prototypes, but there have been a lot. And this ship will be stacked on “Booster 4.” It will make for an impressive backdrop, but will either of these vehicles take flight?

The answer is: probably not. While Booster 4 will have 29 Raptor engines, they appear to have been painted for the presentation, which does not seem like something you would do to a vehicle before a flight.

At the same time, at the nearby production site in South Texas, work is progressing on Ships 21, 22, and more—and at least Boosters 7 and 8. So what is the plan for all of this hardware and its readiness for an orbital launch attempt?

Frankly, there have been rumors swirling that SpaceX may not even attempt an orbital launch this year due to technical issues with the Raptor engine. All of this information has been vague and unconfirmed. However, it is true that SpaceX has been testing the “Raptor 2” engine at its facilities in McGregor Texas with some urgency. Hopefully Musk will clarify all of this.

Will Starship fly from Texas?

Setting aside the rocket’s readiness, there are also questions about the Federal Aviation Administration’s review of the South Texas site for orbital Starship launches.

This past September, the FAA released its initial environmental report on South Texas, which kicked off a public comment period. At the time, the FAA said it planned to release a final assessment at the end of 2021. Then, it delayed that release until the end of February. Now, there is some unconfirmed chatter that the FAA may delay the process beyond the end of February.

Whenever it reaches a conclusion, the FAA is expected to issue one of three rulings: a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI), a Mitigated FONSI, or a Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement. A “FONSI” would allow the formal launch licensing process to proceed. If a full Environmental Impact Statement is needed, launches from South Texas would likely be delayed by months, if not years, as more paperwork is completed.

In recent months, SpaceX has begun restarting operations at a Starship worksite near Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Is it doing so in case the company needs to pivot its Starship program from South Texas to Florida? Again, hopefully Musk will share SpaceX’s view on launch site availability.

How to use Starship?

Starship is the most ambitious rocket ever built, and that is no hyperbole. It is massive and designed to be flown many times, at low cost, with minimal refurbishment. To get there, much development work and testing remains. We know that initial flights will test the capability to launch and land the Super Heavy booster—which should be spectacular, as the plan is to “catch” the massive rocket with a set of “chopsticks”—as well as the Starship vehicle. This will likely require several attempts. Once SpaceX is confident that Starship is reasonably reliable, it will begin to launch large batches of its own Starlink satellites.

But then what happens? One of the biggest space stories in 2021 was NASA’s selection of Starship to serve as the lander for its Artemis Moon program. This put Starship squarely on the critical path of NASA’s most important program, a return to the Moon. How is work coming on this lunar-lander aspect of Starship’s development?

And what of Mars? Clearly there will be no Martian flights in 2022, but it remains possible the company could make a Mars launch window in the fourth quarter of 2024. Planetary scientists have expressed an interest in putting research payloads on these early flights. Does SpaceX have any cargo plans for its first Mars missions?

Humans to Mars remains the ultimate goal, of course. And certainly someone will ask Musk when he thinks the first humans will fly on Starship to Mars. It’s a dumb question, frankly, because no one knows. Musk doesn’t. NASA doesn’t. I don’t. There are a hundred critical funding and technical and regulatory hurdles that must be leaped before humans launch on a mission to Mars.

If it happens in the next decade, it would be a miracle. But also, it won’t happen in our lifetimes unless Starship is a success. Such are the stakes of SpaceX’s Starship effort.

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