Starship: Elon Musk’s giant rocket is getting closer to its maiden flight

Le vaisseau Starship au sommet de son premier étage, Super Heavy.

Posted Jan 13, 2023, 3:44 PM

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

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

“End of February or March”

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

Starship is a concentrate of innovations: fully reusable, the system is designed both for deep human space exploration – to the Moon and Mars – and for putting satellites or other telescopes into orbit. The 29 Raptor engines of the first stage, using a mixture of oxygen and liquid methane, must develop a take-off thrust of nearly 7,600 tons, more than twice that of Saturn V, the rocket of the Apollo lunar missions.

In cargo configuration, the top of the vessel offers a space of 1,100 m3, greater than that offered in its 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 copiously mocked by part of the scientific community, who saw it as a science fiction device rather than the rocket of the future dreamed up by Musk. The spectacular and repeated accidents of the ship during the first tests in the Earth’s atmosphere, in the spring of 2021, had reinforced these mockeries. Not enough to cool NASA, SpaceX’s early support, which selected the Starship as the future lunar lander for the Artemis missions.

All that remains is to fly it into orbit for good. And Elon Musk’s assertions of an imminent take-off should be taken with caution. In February 2022, the multi-billionaire already announced that the system would be ready “in a few months”. In June, he stated that Starship and Super Heavy would take flight in July, and that he planned to launch every month starting in August. He had become much more discreet thereafter.

If the assembly of the system is indeed a major step, the new deadline still seems too optimistic. Captive tests are still to be carried out on the vessel and its first stage. And SpaceX still hasn’t gotten a definitive go-ahead from the FAA, the US Air Force Constable, which is studying the environmental impact of the company’s operations on the Boca Chica lagoon, protected as a refuge for the biodiversity.

The Artemis program on hold

The countdown begins to get urgent. For SpaceX first, which relied on Starship and its large payload capacity to quickly complete the launch of its telecommunications constellation in Starlink low orbit. For NASA, then, which urgently needs to show that its daring bet to choose the only firm of Elon Musk to put its astronauts on the Moon – much criticized in the United States – was not a political suicide – financial.

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 away in the coming months, it will take time for it to be given 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 the lunar conquest in the time of Apollo. And it will still be necessary to develop the techniques for rendezvous in Earth orbit with other Starships, for refueling, then with the Orion capsule in lunar orbit. Enough to give some cold sweats to the decision-makers of the American space agency.