NASA predicts first Starship orbital launch in December

WASHINGTON — NASA expects SpaceX to be ready to attempt a first orbital flight of its Starship vehicle, an essential component of its Artemis lunar exploration plans, by early December, pending testing and regulatory approvals.

Speaking to the Human Exploration and Operations Committee of the NASA Advisory Board Oc. On the 31st, Mark Kirasich, deputy associate administrator for Artemis Campaign Development at NASA, said the agency’s understanding of progress on tests of the Starship vehicle, including its Super Heavy booster, supported an orbital launch effort in late current year.

“Right now, the program would lead to a test flight in early December,” he said. The profile for this test flight will be the same as the company previously reported in regulatory filings, with the Super Heavy booster and Starship taking off from the Boca Chica, Texas test site. The spacecraft would enter orbit but almost immediately re-enter, crashing near Hawaii after completing less than one orbit.

That timeline depends on several upcoming milestones, including a static fire test of all 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster called Booster 7. SpaceX has yet to fire up all 33 Raptor engines at once, having tested up to seven engines at a time as well as a “spin prime” test where the engines’ turbopumps are turned on and propellant flows through the engines without igniting them.

It was during a spin prime test on July 11 that SpaceX suffered what NASA euphemistically calls a “high-energy event” when propellants ignited beneath the booster, destroying it. SpaceX has repaired the booster and implemented corrective actions, according to the agency.

Kirasich said the test put “a relatively large amount of fuel” into a cloud of oxygen, causing the explosion. “It was an operational and programmatic oversight. SpaceX, in the early days, was the speed over the rigor of systems engineering,” he said, calling the event a “pause and learn” for SpaceX.

“They’ve raised the level of systems engineering that was put into each of these tests, as well as brought some new leadership to the team down there,” he said, resulting in “additional rigor” in subsequent tests.

This incident also caught the attention of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Board. A committee member, Paul Hill, mentioned this at the committee’s public meeting on October 27. “SpaceX continues to pursue an aggressive Starship development test plan, but this failure led to corrective actions to increase systems engineering and risk management rigor,” he said.

Kirasich said there are still several milestones before Starship is ready for orbital launch. This includes the static fire test of all 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy as well as a full wet dress rehearsal where the Starship and Super Heavy vehicles are loaded with propellants and put through a practice countdown.

SpaceX also requires a launch permit from the Federal Aviation Administration for the mission. While the FAA cleared the way for Starship launches from Boca Chica with an environmental review in June, that review required SpaceX to implement more than 75 measures to mitigate the environmental impact of those launches. That licensing “is still ahead of us,” Kirasich said.

NASA is closely monitoring preparations for the first Starship orbital launch because the agency sees it as the first in a series of tests of a vehicle it plans to use to land astronauts on the moon aboard Artemis 3 through its Human Landing System contract with SpaceX.

“We’re tracking four major Starship flights,” Kirasich said, starting with the first orbital launch. That was followed by one to test the transfer of propellant into space, which is needed to refuel the Starship lunar lander, and a “longer-duration” Starship mission, the details of which he did not discuss. The fourth mission is the unmanned lunar landing demonstration mission scheduled for late 2024.

He said those four tests were evenly spaced on the schedule when the orbital launch was planned for this summer. “SpaceX lost several months” because of delays to the first orbital launch, he said, but did not say how it would affect the agency’s latest test schedule.

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