ORLANDO — SpaceX’s static-fire test of nearly all the engines in its Starship booster earlier this month was “the last box to check” before the vehicle’s first orbital launch attempt, likely some time in March, a company official said Feb. 21.
Speaking on a panel at the Space Mobility conference here about “rocket cargo” delivery, Gary Henry, senior advisor for national security space solutions at SpaceX, said both the Super Heavy booster and its launch pad were in good shape after the Feb. 9 test, clearing the way for an orbital launch that is still pending a Federal Aviation Administration launch license.
“We had a successful hot fire, and that was really the last box to check,” he said. “The vehicle is in good shape. The pad is in good shape.”
Only 31 of the 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster fired. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted just after the test that one engine was commanded off just before ignition and a second shut down early. He later said that the engines ran at 50% of their rated thrust.
That led to speculation that SpaceX would need to perform a second static-fire test to get all 33 engines, or to run them at higher thrust levels. Henry, though, suggested that SpaceX was not planning another such test before an orbital launch attempt.
“Pretty much all of the prerequisites to supporting an orbital demonstration attempt here in the next month or so look good,” he said.
The company still needs to obtain an FAA launch license before attempting the launch. “We hope to secure that license in the very near future,” he said, setting up a launch attempt “probably in the month of March.”
Once SpaceX performs that orbital launch demonstration, Henry said the company is ready to move ahead rapidly with operational Starship launches. “We very, very quickly converge on a system that we can operationalize,” he said, starting with launches of second-generation Starlink satellites. “We have a few that are waiting very patiently to be launched on Starship.”
Those initial Starlink launches will serve as a test program, he explained, refining the launch and recovery of the two stages of Starship. “Somewhere in that journey that will be happening this year, we’re going to make a major pivot to the next piece of the Human Landing System architecture,” he said, by demonstrating the orbital depot needed for on-orbit refueling of the lunar lander version of Starship.
That will provide additional experience testing Starship through the tankers that will fly to deliver propellant to the depot. “The nice thing about tankers is that they’ve got to reenter as well,” he said. “We’ve created this rubric, in the next year or two, where we will be able to do a lot of experimentation on that thermal protection system that will allow successful reentry of Starship.”
Starship, Henry argued later in the panel, will sharply drive down launch costs. “We are on the cusp of seeing an opportunity of mass to orbit go from $2,000 a kilogram to $200 a kilogram,” he said. In the long term, costs could further decline to the point where the propellant is the largest factor in the per-launch marginal cost.
“If Elon gets his way,” he said, “you’re at $20 per kilogram.”