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Starship of SpaceX

May 17, 2021

Launchers and Propulsion

Starship of SpaceX

Payload mechanical interfaces     Development Status     References


SpaceX’s Starship system represents a fully reusable transportation system designed to service Earth orbit needs as well as missions to the Moon and Mars. This two-stage vehicle—composed of the Super Heavyrocket (booster) and Starship (spacecraft) as shown in Figure 1 — is powered by sub-cooled methane and oxygen. Starship is designed to evolve rapidly to meet near term and future customer needs while maintaining the highest level of reliability. 1)

Starship has the capability to transport satellites, payloads, crew, and cargo to a variety of orbits and Earth, Lunar, or Martian landing sites. Potential Starship customers can use this guide as a resource for preliminary payload accommodations information. This is the initial release of the Starship Users Guide and it will be updated frequently in response to customer feedback.

SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket (collectively referred to as Starship) represent a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tons to Earth orbit. 2)

Starship has a height of 120 m, a diameter of 9 m and a payload capacity to LEO of 100 tons.

The Starship payload fairing is 9 m in diameter and 18 m high, resulting in the largest usable payload volume of any current or in development launcher. This payload volume can be configured for both crew and cargo. - Payload volume: 1,100 m3.

Figure 1: Illustration of the Starship spacecraft (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 1: Illustration of the Starship spacecraft (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 2: Starship crew (left) and uncrewed (right) configurations (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 2: Starship crew (left) and uncrewed (right) configurations (image credit: SpaceX)





Payload mechanical interfaces payload fairing

The standard Starship payload fairing is 9 m in outer diameter resulting in the largest usable payload volume of any current or in development launcher.

The Starship payload fairing is a clamshell structure in which the payload is integrated. Once integrated, the clamshell fairing remains closed through launch up until the payload is ready to deploy. An example sequence of payload deployment is shown in Figure 3. To deploy the payload, the clamshell fairing door is opened, and the payload adapter and payload are tilted at an angle in preparation for separation. The payload is then separated using the mission-unique payload adapter. If there are multiple payloads on a single mission, a rotating mechanism can be provided to allow each satellite to separate with maximum clearance. Once separation is confirmed and the payload(s) have cleared the fairing, the payload fairing door is closed in preparation for Starship’s return to Earth.

Figure 3: Starship payload deployment sequence (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 3: Starship payload deployment sequence (image credit: SpaceX)

Payload volume

Starship’s 8 m diameter payload dynamic envelope is shown in Figure 4. This large deployable envelope allows for the design of novel payloads, rideshare opportunities and entire constellations of satellites on a single launch. An extended payload volume is also available for payloads requiring up to 22 m of height.

Figure 4: Starship payload volume (dimensions in m), image credit: SpaceX
Figure 4: Starship payload volume (dimensions in m), image credit: SpaceX

Payload manifesting

Satellite customers may be manifested on single or multi-manifest missions. Customers can bring a single spacecraft, coordinate their own rideshares for a single Starship launch, or work with SpaceX to take advantage of a multi-manifest launch. Customer missions do not need to wait for co-passengers in order to fly.

The unique and large geometry of the Starship payload bay also opens new opportunities for payload integration. For payloads requiring additional structural support, Starship has the ability to mount supports along the sidewalls or nose to interface with trunnion-style interfaces on the payloads, similar to those employed on NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters. When large payloads are co-manifested on Starship, they are generally mounted side-by-side on the payload adapter. This reduces technical and schedule dependencies between rideshare participants compared to stacked configurations.

Example single-mission manifests:

• 1-3x geosynchronous telecom satellite(s)

• Full constellation of satellites on a single mission

• 1-2x geosynchronous telecom satellites plus rideshare system of small satellites

• In-space demonstration spacecraft that remains integrated with Starship and returns to Earth

• Cargo and crew configurations.

Payload adapters

The Starship payload attach fitting is designed to accommodate standard payload interface systems in single- or multi-manifest configurations. SpaceX will either provide and integrate a payload adapter and clampband separation system or will integrate an adapter and separation system provided by the customer. As a baseline, Starship is compatible with heritage Falcon 937-mm, 1194-mm, 1666-mm and 2624-mm clampband interface requirements, including the ability to host multiple payloads side by side given the large diameter available. For customers with alternative interface requirements, SpaceX has a wide breadth of experience designing and manufacturing non-standard adapters and separation systems.

Payload electrical interfaces

Starship will replicate common payload power and data interface standards on the flight vehicle in lieu of customer-provided electrical ground support equipment (EGSE) for final pre-launch operations. This will allow the payload to be powered, monitored, and commanded after integration into the fairing without facility located payload EGSE. This covers final pre-launch events in the processing facility and on the launch pad, and some of these electrical interfaces may continue to be available in-flight.


Utilizing strong heritage and lessons learned from the development of the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch systems, SpaceX is designing Starship and Super Heavy to provide as benign of a payload environment as possible. SpaceX will ensure that Starship environments meet or improve upon those of the Falcon Heavy launch system. To aid in the design of space vehicles capable of flying on Starship, SpaceX is providing the following preliminary payload environments.


SpaceX is designing Starship to ensure that acceleration environments are well within industry standard levels. During flight, the payload will experience a range of axial and lateral accelerations. Both the Super Heavy and Starship engines can be throttled to help maintain launch vehicle and payload acceleration limits.

The maximum expected design load factors for a single payload mission launching on Starship are shown in Figure 5. Actual payload dynamic loads, accelerations, and deflections are a function of the dynamic coupling between Starship and the payload. These loads can be accurately determined via a coupled loads analysis.

Figure 5: Payload maximum design load factors (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 5: Payload maximum design load factors (image credit: SpaceX)

Payload integration

SpaceX is initially planning for two launch sites for the Starship vehicle:

• Kennedy Space Center LC-39A | 28.6082° N latitude, 80.6041° W longitude

• Boca Chica launch pad | 25.9971° N latitude, 97.1554° W longitude.

For payloads requiring return to Earth, landing sites are coordinated with SpaceX and could include Kennedy Space Center, FL or Boca Chica, TX.

Payloads are integrated into the Starship fairing vertically in ISO Class 8 (Class 100,000) cleanrooms. Then the integrated payload stack is transferred to the launch pad and lifted onto the Starship vehicle, while maintaining the same vertical orientation throughout the entire process. Conditioned air is delivered into the fairing during encapsulated ground processing while in the processing facility and on the launch pad.

Payload separation

SpaceX provides in-flight commanding and monitoring of the payload separation system(s). Starship can perform 3-axis attitude controlled or spin-stabilized spacecraft separation. Note that certain spacecraft separation maneuvers may reduce available payload volume. Collision avoidance maneuvers will be performed as required.


The Starship and Super Heavy system offers substantial mass-to-orbit capabilities. At the baseline reusable design, Starship can deliver over 100 metric tons to LEO. Utilizing parking orbit refueling, Starship is able to deliver unprecedented payload mass to a variety of Earth, cislunar, and interplanetary trajectories. A summary of available Starship capabilities is provided in Table 1. The single launch mass-to-orbit assumes no orbital refueling of Starship. The maximum mass-to-orbit assumes parking orbit propellant transfer, allowing for a substantial increase in payload mass. These performance numbers assume full Starship reuse, including Super Heavy return to launch site.


Mass-to-Orbit Single Launch

Mass-to Orbit Prop Transfer (t)

LEO (Up to 500 km circular orbit at up to 98.9º inclination)



GTO (assumes 185 x 35,786 km orbit at 27º inclination with
1800 m/s ΔV to go)



Lunar Surface



Mars Surface



Table 1: Expected Starship Performance

Cargo configuration

Starship was designed from the onset to be able to carry more than 100 tons of cargo to Mars and the Moon. The cargo version can also be used for rapid point-to-point Earth transport. Various payload bay configurations are available and allow for fully autonomous deployment of cargo to Earth, Lunar, or Martian surfaces with one example shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6: Cargo Starship on Lunar Surface (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 6: Cargo Starship on Lunar Surface (image credit: SpaceX)

Crew configuration

SpaceX was founded with the goal of making life multi-planetary. The Starship program is realizing this goal with the crew configuration of Starship. Drawing on experience from the development of Dragon for the Commercial Crew Program, the Starship crew configuration can transport up to 100 people from Earth into LEO and on to the Moon and Mars. The crew configuration of Starship includes private cabins, large common areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters and a viewing gallery.

Figure 7: Starship Crew Configuration (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 7: Starship Crew Configuration (image credit: SpaceX)





Development status

• July 12, 2022: A test of the booster for SpaceX’s first orbital Starship vehicle July 11 ended with flames erupting unexpectedly from the base of the vehicle, triggering a fire at the pad. 3)

Figure 8: SpaceX rolled the Super Heavy vehicle called Booster 7 to the pad at Boca Chica, Texas, in June for tests. One such test July 11 ended with flames unexpectedly erupting from the base of the booster (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 8: SpaceX rolled the Super Heavy vehicle called Booster 7 to the pad at Boca Chica, Texas, in June for tests. One such test July 11 ended with flames unexpectedly erupting from the base of the booster (image credit: SpaceX)


Figure 9: Video of testing activities at SpaceX’s Starbase complex at Boca Chica, Texas, showed a burst of flames at the base of the Super Heavy booster called Booster 7 around 5:20 p.m. Eastern. Later, at least one fire was seen in the vicinity of the pad, presumably triggered by the incident, sending a plume of black smoke into the air (video credit: SpaceX)

- In a series of tweets, Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief executive, said the company was planning a “spin start test” of the engines, one that did not involve ignition of the engines. “Raptor has a complex start sequence,” he wrote. “Going forward, we won’t do a spin start test with all 33 engines at once.”

- While Musk acknowledged the incident was “not good,” it was not clear what damage it did to the booster itself. “Base of the vehicle seems ok by flashlight,” he said in a late-night tweet. “Will know more in the morning.”

- SpaceX has been conducting tests of both Booster 7 and a Starship upper stage called Ship 24 at Starbase ahead of a first orbital launch of the vehicle. SpaceX has not set a formal launch date for that first flight, nor is it clear how this incident will affect those plans.

- On that orbital launch, the Super Heavy booster will either splash down in the Gulf of Mexico or attempt a landing back at Starbase, according to a recent Federal Communications Commission filing. Starship will briefly enter orbit at an altitude of about 250 kilometers before reentering and making a “powered, targeted landing” in the Pacific Ocean just north of Hawaii. That FCC application for an experimental license covers a six-month period starting Aug. 1.

- SpaceX will still need a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration in order to conduct the launch. While the FAA completed an environmental assessment June 13 allowing such launches to proceed, that review requires SpaceX to implement dozens of measures to mitigate environmental effects.

• June 13, 2022: A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) environmental review has concluded that SpaceX can conduct orbital launches of its Starship vehicle from its Texas test site, but only after completing dozens of mitigations to reduce impacts on the environment and the public. 4)

- The FAA issued June 13, after nearly half a year of delays, what is formally known as a mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) for SpaceX’s proposal to perform orbital launches of its Starship vehicle, atop its Super Heavy booster, from Boca Chica, Texas. The mitigated FONSI means that SpaceX is cleared, from an environmental standpoint, to carry out those launches once it implements more than 75 measures to mitigate environmental effects (see Figure 10).

- Among those mitigations are changes in closures in the road that leads to both the SpaceX site, called Starbase, as well as a public beach. SpaceX will provide more advanced notice of closures for testing and launches. It will be prohibited from closing access during 18 holidays and will be limited to five weekend closures per year. Closures will be limited to 500 hours a year for normal operations and up to 300 more hours “to address anomalies,” according to FAA documents. The review is for up to five orbital launches per year, as well as five suborbital launches and ground tests.

- Other mitigations included in the modified FONSI include changes in lighting at the facility, monitoring of wildlife in the area by a “qualified biologist” and use of shuttles to transport employees to and from Starbase to limit traffic. In addition, SpaceX modified its proposal to eliminate infrastructure such as a desalination plant and a power plant that the company says it no longer needs to support launch operations.

- Completion of the environmental review, though, does not yet provide final clearance for SpaceX to begin orbital launches from Boca Chica. The company must implement the mitigations and also obtain an FAA launch license, the schedules for which neither the FAA nor SpaceX disclosed. SpaceX is also continuing to test the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle.

- SpaceX appeared to welcome the FAA decision. “One step closer to the orbital flight test of Starship,” the company tweeted, linking to the FAA website with the decision and related documents. The company offered no further comment.

- Environmental groups remain concerned about the impacts of Starship launches from Boca Chica. “We are disappointed in this decision, but surely Elon Musk and his team don’t actually want to harm endangered species,” said Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, in a statement. That organization is concerned about how Starship launches affect endangered and threatened species like the piping plover in the area.

- “We’re hoping that the SpaceX team will see that life here on Earth is worthy of more consideration and agree to minimizing the impacts at the Boca Chica facility,” he said.

• March 26, 2022: The Federal Aviation Administration has again delayed completion of an environmental assessment for orbital launches of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle from Texas, although it may have no effect on near-term launch plans. 5)

- The FAA announced March 25 that it had pushed back the expected completion of the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of Starship/Super Heavy orbital launches from Boca Chica, Texas, by another month. The assessment, previously targeted from completion March 28, is now targeted for release April 29.

Figure 10: SpaceX showed off a completed Starship/Super Heavy vehicle in February, but that vehicle now appears unlikely to perform the first orbital launch attempt once the FAA awards a license to the company (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 10: SpaceX showed off a completed Starship/Super Heavy vehicle in February, but that vehicle now appears unlikely to perform the first orbital launch attempt once the FAA awards a license to the company (image credit: SpaceX)

- This is the third delay in the completion of the assessment, which was originally scheduled for release at the end of December 2021. The FAA delayed the release first to Feb. 28, then to March 28, citing ongoing work to complete the assessment and coordinate with other government agencies.

- “The FAA is currently reviewing the Final PEA and completing consultation and coordination with agencies at the local, State, and Federal level,” the FAA said in a statement about the latest delay.

- According to a federal government permitting timetable, the major elements awaiting completion for the environmental assessment are an Endangered Species Act consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service and consultations with agencies on an element of the National Historic Preservation Act called a Section 106 Review.

- While the environmental delays are frustrating for advocates of the company, it’s not clear that they are actually delaying launch activity by SpaceX. The environmental review is required for SpaceX to receive an FAA launch license for Starship orbital flights.

- At a Feb. 10 event in Boca Chica, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk spoke with a completed Starship/Super Heavy vehicle standing behind him on the pad. He said then that the company was “a couple months” away from a first launch based on both FAA licensing and technical work.

- However, it now appears likely that the vehicle that appeared on the pad will not be the one to make the first orbital launch attempt. Activity at SpaceX’s Starbase site in Boca Chica suggests that a different Super Heavy booster and Starship vehicle will be used for the first orbital flight, but only after extensive ground testing.

- Musk, at the February event, suggested that Starship test launches could shift from Boca Chica to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida if there are extensive delays in getting a license for a launch from Boca Chica. SpaceX is working on both a launch pad for Starship at Launch Complex 39A as well as production facilities elsewhere at the center.

- “I guess our worst-case scenario is that we would be delayed for six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there,” he said then.

• January 10, 2022: SpaceX has dropped a plan to use Falcon 9 to launch the 30,000 satellites in its proposed second-generation Starlink broadband constellation, and is instead focusing on a configuration leveraging its upcoming Starship vehicle. 6)

Figure 11: SpaceX's Starship Ship 20 vehicle fires a Raptor engine during an Oct. 21 static-fire test (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 11: SpaceX's Starship Ship 20 vehicle fires a Raptor engine during an Oct. 21 static-fire test (image credit: SpaceX)

- The decision follows development progress that SpaceX said exceeded the company’s expectations and means it could start “launching the Gen2 system as early as March 2022,” SpaceX lawyer William Wiltshire said in a Jan. 7 letter to the Federal Communications Commission.

- Starship missions are subject to a favorable environmental review into SpaceX’s launch facility at Boca Chica, Texas, which the Federal Aviation Administration expects to complete Feb. 28.

- SpaceX currently has FCC approval to deploy 4,408 satellites to low Earth orbit at an altitude of around 550 kilometers, and has launched more than half of them to date. The FCC has not yet approved SpaceX’s plans for the larger, second-generation constellation. SpaceX asked the FCC to expedite approval now that it has settled on the Starship-launched configuration.

- “Just as terrestrial wireless networks meet customer demands by operating more than one generation of technology simultaneously, SpaceX plans to use both of its networks to provide superior service,” Wiltshire wrote.

- “SpaceX will continue to maintain its first-generation system, launching replacement satellites as appropriate to sustain the orbits in which it operates, even as it conducts the initial deployment of the Gen2 system. To be clear, operating both systems simultaneously does not mean that SpaceX will necessarily operate all of the satellites under its authorizations at all times in all areas.”

- He said a “SpaceX customer user terminal will be able to receive service from satellites of either system.”

- In August, the company proposed two configurations for a follow-on network it originally submitted to the FCC in 2020, with both options designed to spread satellites more evenly across nine to 12 inclined orbits for denser and more consistent coverage — without needing additional spectrum or spacecraft.

- The proposed Starship configuration, which SpaceX had earlier said was its preferred option, comprises 29,988 satellites at altitudes of between 340 and 614 kilometers across nine inclined orbits.

- The now-abandoned Falcon 9 configuration would have spread 29,996 satellites across 12 orbital inclinations, at altitudes between 328 and 614 kilometers.

- Amazon and other SpaceX rivals had called on the FCC to dismiss the amended plan, saying requesting permission for more than one configuration encourages speculative application behavior from future constellation operators.

• December 28, 2021: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) says it needs at least two more months to complete an environmental review of SpaceX Starship orbital launches from its Boca Chica, Texas, facility. 7)

Figure 12: The first commercial Starship/Super Heavy mission will likely carry a telecommunications satellite (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 12: The first commercial Starship/Super Heavy mission will likely carry a telecommunications satellite (image credit: SpaceX)

- The FAA said Dec. 28 that was unable to meet an original Dec. 31 deadline to complete an environmental assessment of plans by SpaceX to conduct orbital launches of its Starship/Super Heavy vehicle from the Boca Chica facility the company calls Starbase. That review, formally known as a Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA), is a key requirement for obtaining an FAA launch license needed for those launches.

- “However, due to the high volume of comments submitted on the Draft PEA, discussions and consultation efforts with consulting parties, the FAA is announcing an update to the schedule,” the FAA stated on its website. “The FAA now plans to release the Final PEA on February 28, 2022.”

- The FAA received more than 18,000 public comments to the draft version of the report, released in September. SpaceX is working to respond to those public comments under the supervision of the FAA, the agency noted, but did not give further details about the analysis of the comments. Two public hearings about the review in October generated many comments both supportive and critical of SpaceX’s plans.

- The environmental review process also includes consultations with other government agencies. The FAA noted that those consultations involve those regarding endangered species and perseveration of historical sites.

- The postponed completion of the environmental review means a delay in the award of an FAA launch license for Starship/Super Heavy orbital launches from Boca Chica. In November, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said he expected to get the launch license at the end of 2021 with a first orbital launch projected for January or February 2022.

- It is not clear, however, that SpaceX would be ready for an orbital launch attempt on that schedule even if the environmental review and licensing process was completed as previously planned. Musk said in November that SpaceX would perform a “bunch of tests” of the Starship vehicle and its Super Heavy booster in December, but many of those anticipated tests, such as static fires, have not occurred yet.

- There is also no guarantee that the new Feb. 28 deadline will not be extended again. An environmental review of a proposed launch site in Georgia, Spaceport Camden, suffered a series of delays lasting months before the FAA awarded a spaceport license for the facility Dec. 20.

• December 1, 2021: Problems increasing production of the Raptor engines that power SpaceX’s Starship vehicle have led to personnel shakeups at the company and a warning from founder Elon Musk that the company risked “bankruptcy” if the company could not resolve them. 8)

Figure 13: The large number of Raptor engines needed for SpaceX's Starship/Super Heavy vehicle is creating a “production crisis” at SpaceX, company founder Elon Musk said in an internal email (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 13: The large number of Raptor engines needed for SpaceX's Starship/Super Heavy vehicle is creating a “production crisis” at SpaceX, company founder Elon Musk said in an internal email (image credit: SpaceX)

- The issue came to a head in a Nov. 26 email from Musk to SpaceX employees where Musk warned of a cascading effect of the “production crisis” of Raptor engines that could affect deployment of the next generation of its Starlink constellation and overall company finances. The email, obtained by SpaceNews, was first reported by

- “Unfortunately, the Raptor production crisis is much worse than it seemed a few weeks ago,” he wrote. “As we have dug into the issues following exiting prior senior management, they have unfortunately turned out to be far more severe than was reported.”

- Musk’s email did not go into the specifics of the issues, but his comments likely refer to the recent departure of Will Heltsley, vice president of propulsion at SpaceX. Heltsley, who had been at SpaceX since 2009 and in the role of vice president of propulsion since 2018, left amid problems scaling up production of Raptor.

- In the email, sent the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, Musk said he had planned to take the holiday weekend off “but instead I will be on the Raptor line all night and through the weekend,” calling on company employees to do the same. “Unless you have critical family matters or cannot physically return to Hawthorne, we need all hands on deck to recover from what is, quite frankly, a disaster.”

- SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment on Musk’s email. The company infrequently acknowledges media inquiries.

- SpaceX needs to produce large numbers of Raptor engines for its Starship vehicle, whose first orbital flight could take place as soon as January. The Starship vehicle itself uses six Raptor engines, but its Super Heavy booster needed for orbital launches currently has 29 engines. Musk said in a Nov. 17 talk to two National Academies committees that Super Heavy will later use 33 Raptor engines, but did not give a schedule for that change.

- The company is building a new factory at its McGregor, Texas, test site for large-scale production of Raptor engines, but for now is building the engines at its Hawthorne, California, headquarters. Musk said in July the McGregor facility will be able to produce two to four Raptor engines per day, but the company has not stated when that factory will begin operations.

- That’s created a production crunch as SpaceX plans for a series of test flights of Starship in 2022. Musk said at the National Academies meeting that SpaceX is planning for as many as a dozen test flights of Starship in 2022 with the goal of enabling commercial operations to begin in 2023. “The engine build rate is currently the biggest constraint on how many vehicles we can make,” he said then.

- Musk, though, appeared to be aiming for a much higher launch rate in his email. “What it comes down to is that we face genuine risk of bankruptcy if we cannot achieve a Starship flight rate of at least once every two weeks next year,” he wrote. That would be 26 launches next year, although one industry source, speaking on background, said Musk was likely referring to a launch rate to be achieved by the end of 2022, not an average for the full year.

- The risk of bankruptcy is tied to the need to use Starship to deploy a second generation of Starlink satellites. “The consequences for SpaceX if we can’t get enough reliable Raptors made is that we then can’t fly Starship, which means we then can’t fly Starlink Satellite V2 (Falcon has neither the volume *nor* the mass to orbit needed for satellite V2),” he wrote. “Satellite V1 by itself is financially weak, whereas V2 is strong.”

- SpaceX, he added, is investing “massive capital” on production of end-user terminals, with a goal of several million units per year. Those terminals, he wrote, depend on the additional bandwidth the second generation of Starlink satellites will provide. “These terminals will be useless otherwise,” he wrote.

- In tweets Nov. 30, Musk appeared to back away from some of the more dire warnings in his earlier email. “If a severe global recession were to dry up capital availability / liquidity while SpaceX was losing billions on Starlink & Starship, then bankruptcy, while still unlikely, is not impossible,” he wrote, mentioning the bankruptcies of automakers Chrysler and General Motors in the 2008 recession. He then cited a quote attributed to Andy Grove, the late chief executive of Intel: “Only the paranoid survive.”

- As for the Raptor production issues, he said in another tweet, “It’s getting fixed.”

• October 22, 2021: SpaceX performed a static-fire test of a Starship vehicle Oct. 21 as debate continues about an environmental assessment of the company’s proposed launch operations in Texas. 9)

- SpaceX performed two brief firings of a single Raptor engine mounted in a Starship vehicle called Ship 20 at its Boca Chica, Texas, test site. The tests were the first involving the vacuum variant of the engine, which has a much larger nozzle to accommodate the expanded plume when operating without significant atmospheric pressure.

Figure 14: SpaceX's Starship Ship 20 vehicle fires a Raptor engine during an Oct. 21 static-fire test (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 14: SpaceX's Starship Ship 20 vehicle fires a Raptor engine during an Oct. 21 static-fire test (image credit: SpaceX)

- In a series of tweets, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk explained that the high chamber pressure of the Raptor engine allows the company to test the vacuum version of the engine at sea level conditions without suffering significant separation of the exhaust from the nozzle.

- Those tests and other work continue at Boca Chica as the Federal Aviation Administration performs its environmental assessment of orbital launch activities there, a requirement for issuing a launch license for the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle. The agency released for public comment Sept. 17 a draft programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) of those launch operations for public comment.

- That public comment process included two virtual public hearings, held via Zoom, on Oct. 18 and 20. FAA officials provided an overview of the PEA and then accepted oral comments from the public. The agency is also accepting comments by mail and email through Nov. 1.

- The public hearings showed sharp differences of opinion about SpaceX’s plans to conduct orbital launches from Boca Chica. Many attendees were strong advocates for the company and the proposed launch site, calling it critical to the nation’s future in space. They also played down the environmental impact, often comparing it to the launch sites at Cape Canaveral in Florida, which are embedded within a wildlife refuge.

- “I stand with SpaceX and want them to have full approval to do as many launches as they need to make this system actually work,” said one participant, Aiden Girlya, at the Oct. 20 hearing, in a comment representative of many of the pro-SpaceX views aired at the meetings. “I do not believe they should be limited to a certain amount. They should be able to do as many launches as they need to because we have not seen any environmental impacts so far.”

- Others emphasized the economic benefits of having SpaceX in the area, arguing they outweighed any environmental impacts. Jessica Tetreau-Kalifa, a Brownsville, Texas, city commissioner, said at the Oct. 18 hearing that SpaceX had turned the city from one of the poorest in the country to “one of the most sought-after ZIP codes” to live and work. “I don’t just ask you, I beg you to give them that permit.”

- Opponents of SpaceX’s plans argued that the environmental impacts are already significant and that the draft PEA underestimates the even larger impacts of orbital launches. Bill Berg, a member of a nonprofit group called Save RGV that is opposed to a Boca Chica launch site, noted Oct. 20 that the number of nests of piping plovers, a threatened bird species, had dropped in the area from 41 three years ago to one this year.

- Those opponents called on the FAA to require the development of an environmental impact statement (EIS), a more details environmental review, before issuing a launch license. Development of an EIS would take months or potentially years, delaying SpaceX’s plans.

- “The stakes are simply too high not to invest in a thorough EIS,” said Sharon Wilcox, senior Texas representative for Defenders of Wildlife, a wildlife conservation nonprofit, at the Oct. 18 hearing.

- The rhetoric got heated at times during the hearings, which lasted several hours each. Some critics of SpaceX accused the company of “environmental racism” by locating the site in an area with a large minority propulsion. Another attendee dismissed those claims as “wokeism.”

- There was some nuance during the public comments, though. A few speakers, while generally supportive of SpaceX, wanted more information about elements of the company’s plans, such as a 250-megawatt power plant and transportation and storage of methane.

- At the Oct. 20 hearing, Russell Sutton, a resident of Detroit, described himself as a “SpaceX fanboy” but also an environmentalist. “This PEA document is woefully inadequate in addressing many of the proposed expansions at Starbase,” SpaceX’s name for its Boca Chica facility. He called on SpaceX and the FAA to expedite development of an EIS, an approach that he argued would prevent legal challenges and delays.

- Earlier in that hearing, Joshua Montgomery said he runs Wicked Broadband, a rural broadband provider based in Kansas. He said his company is a competitor to SpaceX’s Starlink, but he supported SpaceX’s plans for launching from Boca Chica, concluding that any environmental impacts can be mitigated.

- “Despite the fact that this is going to impact my personal bottom line,” he said, “I would like to see the FAA move forward with the environmental studies as they’ve been provided and allow SpaceX to continue to launch from their Boca Chica facility.”

• October 19, 2021: Senate appropriators want NASA to select a second company for its program to develop crewed lunar landers, but provided the agency with only a small increase in funding to support that. 10)

Figure 15: SpaceX’s Starship, which won a NASA award in April, is the biggest example of NASA’s use of services for the Artemis program but not the only one (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 15: SpaceX’s Starship, which won a NASA award in April, is the biggest example of NASA’s use of services for the Artemis program but not the only one (image credit: SpaceX)

- The Senate Appropriations Committee released Oct. 18 drafts of its versions of nine appropriations bills for fiscal year 2022, including commerce, justice and science, which funds NASA. That bill offers $24.83 billion for NASA overall, slightly above the administration’s request of $24.8 billion but less than the $25.04 billion in a House bill.

- The biggest change in the budget is in NASA’s exploration account, which would get $7.28 billion in the bill, nearly $400 million above the request. While funding for the Orion spacecraft is kept constant, the bill increases funding for the Space Launch System, Exploration Ground Systems and Exploration Research and Development.

- In the brief subcommittee markup session, Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), ranking member of the subcommittee, mentioned the SLS increase in particular. “NASA seldom, if ever, provides Congress with a budget request for the Space Launch System that reflects program estimates,” he complained, calling for “multiyear acquisition plans” for long-term SLS production.

- That included, he said, development of a cargo version of the SLS, which replaces the Orion spacecraft with a large payload fairing. “Congress must ensure the future of the SLS includes a cargo variant, which, in fact, has long been part of the NASA plan,” he said. “This capability will be integral to future lunar cargo and science missions.”

- However, at a meeting of the steering committee of the planetary sciences decadal survey July 7, a NASA official said that the limited production rate of the SLS — currently one a year, and not slated to increase to two per year until as late as the early 2030s — meant that the cargo version of SLS would not be available until at least the late 2020s in order to support Artemis missions.

- NASA’s science program would see an overall increase of $38 million compared to the request, with increases to planetary science and astrophysics offset partially by cuts to heliophysics and biological and physical sciences. Aeronautics would increase by $20 million, but space operations would be cut by $56 million.

- The biggest proposed cut would be to NASA’s space technology account, which would be cut by $145 million compared to the request of $1.425 billion but would still be above the $1.1 billion it received in 2021. The bill also requires NASA to spent $227 million on the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing (OSAM) 1 mission and $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion technologies. NASA requested $227 million for OSAM-1 in its budget proposal but did not include funding for nuclear propulsion.

- Aderholt mentioned the nuclear thermal propulsion funding in his comments at the markup, but expressed disappointment that the bill does not require the funding to support a flight demonstration by 2024, a goal supported in past years’ bills. NASA’s work on nuclear thermal propulsion is led by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

- “We need this technology to out-compete China as both countries continue deep space exploration,” he said. “Therefore, I am deeply disappointed that the long-standing bipartisan language requiring NASA to use $80 million of the funding for the design of a flight demonstration was not included. The omission imperils the progress of, and our previous investments in, nuclear thermal propulsion capabilities.”

- The bill does not go into details about most programs, specifics contained in the report accompanying the bill that will be released when the full House Appropriations Committee marks up the bill July 15. For example, the bill is silent on the Human Landing System program, which is part of the Exploration R&D budget line that would get $150 million more than the nearly $2.4 billion requested.

- NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has lobbied House and Senate appropriators to add funding to NASA’s budget to allow it to support a second HLS (Human Landing System) provider. The large amount of funding needed — more than $5 billion over several years — led Nelson to recommend that the funding be included in any jobs and infrastructure bill that Congress takes up outside of the normal appropriations process.

- Aderholt criticized the bill for lack of direction on HLS. “This bill fails to adequately address recent unwise NASA decisions that have jeopardized the Human Landing System,” he said, a reference to NASA’s selection of a single company, SpaceX, for an HLS award because of limited budgets. “I believe this committee must provide appropriate direction to NASA to restore foundational aspects of this program.”

- Other members of the committee mentioned NASA’s part of the overall $81.3 billion CJS bill only in passing. “This subcommittee’s commitment to American leadership in space science, space exploration and aeronautics research continues in this year’s bill,” said Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), chairman of the subcommittee.

• September 20, 2021: A draft environmental assessment released by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suggests that SpaceX will be able to proceed with orbital Starship launches from Texas, but with a number of mitigations required. 11)

- The release of the Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) by the FAA Sept. 17 starts a public comment period that will run through Oct. 18, with two virtual public meetings scheduled for Oct. 6 and 7.

Figure 16: SpaceX personnel attach a Starship vehicle to its Super Heavy in an August test. Orbital launches of Starship/Super Heavy can't begin until after the FAA completes an environmental assessment of those proposed launches (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 16: SpaceX personnel attach a Starship vehicle to its Super Heavy in an August test. Orbital launches of Starship/Super Heavy can't begin until after the FAA completes an environmental assessment of those proposed launches (image credit: SpaceX)

- The FAA required the assessment before deciding whether to issue a launch license or experimental permit to SpaceX for orbital launches of its Starship/Super Heavy vehicle. Previous low-altitude suborbital test flights by Starship used an earlier environmental assessment originally prepared when SpaceX planned to launch Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from its Boca Chica, Texas, site. That earlier review is not sufficient to account for environmental impacts from the far larger Starship/Super Heavy configuration.

- The report itself does not determine if the FAA should license Starship orbital launches but instead assesses the environmental effects of launch activities and whether and how they can be mitigated. The report could lead the FAA to seek what it calls a “more intensive” environmental impact statement.

- However, the draft version of the report identifies few issues it deemed significant. Many of the factors included in the assessment, from air and water quality to noise and visual effects, can be mitigated through measures outlined in the report. For example, SpaceX would be required to take measures minimize any release of hazardous materials and waste and clean up any spills.

- One potential stumbling block is potential effects on endangered species around Boca Chica. The report concluded that orbital launches from Boca Chica “would adversely affect species listed under and critical habitat designated under the federal Endangered Species Act.” The FAA said it’s working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine those effects, and that the environmental review process won’t be completed until that agency offers its formal opinion.

- This environmental assessment, though, may only apply to initial Starship launches from Boca Chica. The assessment assumes up to 20 Starship suborbital test flights annually during its development phase, and up to five Starship/Super Heavy orbital launches annually. SpaceX’s projected demand for Starship is likely to far exceed that flight rate, which could require a reassessment of its environmental impacts.

- “If the Draft PEA is finalized, and SpaceX further develops the program, the FAA would analyze the environmental impacts of proposed future activities in part by using information developed during the current process,” the FAA said in a Sept. 17 statement.

- In a Sept. 17 tweet, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk called on the public to express its support for his company’s Boca Chica plans. “Please add your voice to the public comments. Support is greatly appreciated!” he said. “Humanity’s future on the moon, Mars & beyond depends upon it.”

- Once the public comment period closes, the FAA will incorporate those comments and other work into a final version of the environmental assessment. The FAA will then make a “record of decision” about whether the proposal would have significant environmental impacts. Only when that is done would it complete the licensing process for Starship/Super Heavy orbital launches.

• August 4, 2021: The unstoppable force of SpaceX’s recent surge in development of its Starship vehicle for its first orbital flight is in danger of colliding with an immovable object: an ongoing environment review that has no clear end date. 12)

- SpaceX has in recent weeks stepped up activity at its Boca Chica, Texas, test site, which the company calls Starbase, rushing to complete a Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage for the first orbital test flight of the vehicle.

- The company has reportedly transferred hundreds of employees from its other facilities to Boca Chica to assist on that manufacturing surge. In recent days, that work has featured the installation of 29 Raptor engines in the base of the Super Heavy booster, which was rolled out to the launch site Aug. 3. The company also installed all six Raptor engines in the Starship vehicle known as “Ship 20,” including three vacuum variants with extended nozzles.

Figure 17: SpaceX released an image Aug. 2 showing the base of a Super Heavy booster with all 29 Raptor engines installed (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 17: SpaceX released an image Aug. 2 showing the base of a Super Heavy booster with all 29 Raptor engines installed (image credit: SpaceX)

- “Starbase is moving at Warp 9,” Musk tweeted July 31, showing images of construction of the launch mount atop which Super Heavy and Starship would be placed. He has also released images of the completion of engine installation on both the Super Heavy booster, known as Booster 4, and Ship 20.

- There are still likely weeks, if not months, of work before the vehicle will be ready for an orbital launch. Those activities range from fit checks of the vehicles on the pad to a series of static fire tests. SpaceX hasn’t announced a date for the launch, although in a Federal Communications Commission filing in May, the company said it was targeting a six-month period that started June 20. Those dates, however, can be amended.

- That FCC filing outlined the plan for that orbital launch. The Super Heavy booster would fire for 169 seconds before the Starship vehicle separates. The booster would “land” in the Gulf of Mexico 32 km offshore from Boca Chica. Starship would use its engines to go into orbit, but reenter after less than one orbit, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean 100 km northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

- That launch can’t take place, though, until SpaceX receives a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. That license is dependent on the completion of an environmental assessment of Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica currently underway.

- The FAA has released few updates about the development of that assessment. However, even when complete, the draft version will be released for public comment, which would then be incorporated into the final version. Moreover, the report may recommend the FAA perform a more thorough environmental impact study, which would further delay any launch license.

- An FAA spokesman said Aug. 3 that the agency doesn’t have a schedule for completing the environmental assessment. “SpaceX cannot launch Starship / Super Heavy until the FAA licensing process is completed, including the environmental review and any potential mitigations put in place,” the FAA added.

• July 05, 2021: NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) program is the biggest bet the agency has made on the commercial space industry since the commercial crew program a decade ago. NASA decided to procure landing services rather than the landers themselves, awarding a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX April 16 to fund development of a lunar lander based on the company’s Starship vehicle and fly one demonstration mission with astronauts. 13)

- That approach has attracted plenty of scrutiny and criticism. The award to SpaceX is on hold as the Government Accountability Office evaluates protests filed by two losing bidders, Blue Origin and Dynetics. A bill passed by the Senate June 8 would require NASA to select a second company, although with no guarantee that the funding will be there to support both companies.

- HLS may be the biggest example of NASA buying services to support the Artemis program, but it is not the only one. Even as some cornerstones of Artemis — Orion, the Space Launch System and the Gateway — move forward under conventional contracts where NASA owns and operates the hardware, it’s making greater use of service contracts to acquire the other things it needs to explore the moon, from landers and communications to even the spacesuits the astronauts will wear on their moonwalks.

Figure 18: SpaceX’s Starship, which won a NASA award in April, is the biggest example of NASA’s use of services for the Artemis program but not the only one (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 18: SpaceX’s Starship, which won a NASA award in April, is the biggest example of NASA’s use of services for the Artemis program but not the only one (image credit: SpaceX)

CLPS as a Services Pathfinder

- HLS is not NASA’s first lunar lander services program. In 2018, NASA unveiled the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program, where the agency would buy payload space on commercially developed robotic lunar landers.

- The idea was to provide frequent and inexpensive access to the moon for experiments and technology demonstrations, particularly those with a higher tolerance of risk. Agency officials often talked about taking “shots on goal” with CLPS, with the expectation that not every shot would make it in.

- Fourteen companies have received NASA contracts through CLPS, making them eligible to bid on task orders for delivery missions. Four companies have won the six task orders NASA has issued to date: Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines each won two, along with Firefly Aerospace and Masten Space Systems. Their missions range from transporting scientific instruments that had been sitting on the shelf waiting for a ride to VIPER, a NASA rover the size of a golf cart that will search for ice deposits at the lunar south pole.

- CLPS is also a pathfinder for buying services for lunar exploration. “The big thing here is that we’re starting to work more closely with the commercial community,” said Jake Bleacher, chief exploration scientist at NASA. “CLPS is our first step on that front.”

- That has become a learning experience for both NASA and the companies as they get used to different ways of doing business. Some scientists who have experiments flying on CLPS missions have privately complained that NASA’s approach of buying payload space on commercial landers shifts the technical burden, and costs, onto researchers. They now have to come up with their own solutions to engineering issues like thermal control that would, in a traditional approach, be handled in a more integrated fashion.

- A services approach also doesn’t prevent delays. When NASA made the first CLPS awards in May 2019, the three winners — Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond — promised to launch their missions by the middle of 2021. But Orbit Beyond, whose lander was going to be the first to launch in September 2020, returned its award two months later because of what NASA called “internal corporate challenges.”

- Intuitive Machines saw its first Nova-C lander mission slip slightly from July to October 2021. However, in a Federal Communication Commission license application filed in April, the company revealed its launch had been delayed to no earlier than the first quarter of 2022. The company blamed the delay on its launch provider, SpaceX, who said that “unique mission requirements” forced the delay.

- Astrobotic, which originally was going to launch its Peregrine lander in June 2021, is still hoping to launch before the end of the year. It will fly on the inaugural Vulcan Centaur rocket from United Launch Alliance, whose development has been delayed by issues with its BE-4 main engine. ULA has suggested that customer payload delays, and not Vulcan issues, would delay its first launch with the Peregrine lander into 2022.

- John Thornton, chief executive of Astrobotic, said at a June 9 event that the Peregrine launch is coming “very soon” but wasn’t more specific.

Figure 19: Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will be one of the first missions in NASA’s CLPS program (image credit: Astrobotic)
Figure 19: Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander will be one of the first missions in NASA’s CLPS program (image credit: Astrobotic)

LunaNet and Moonlight

- There have been proposals to expand the CLPS program to include orbiters or even sample return missions. However, the next frontier for commercial services at the moon may involve infrastructure.

- NASA is studying a concept it calls LunaNet: a network of satellites that would relay communications and provide navigation information for spacecraft on or around the moon. Current and proposed missions can communicate directly to Earth, but increasing lunar traffic will strain existing ground networks, and won’t work for missions on the lunar farside, where Earth is out of view.

- “Our philosophy is that each mission should not have to create its own communications and navigation infrastructure. That’s not efficient,” said Andy Petro, lunar communications and navigation implementation lead at NASA Headquarters. “We see having an infrastructure to provide those services lowers the barrier to entry for new missions and capabilities.”

- Exactly what LunaNet will look like is unclear, as the project is still in its earliest phases of development. “The idea of having relays this early was not anticipated,” he said at a meeting of a Space Studies Board committee in April. Interest in doing missions on the far side of the moon, as well as exploration of the polar regions where direct-to-Earth communications can be difficult, accelerated planning for a communications network.

- However, it’s unlikely that LunaNet would be a conventional NASA program. “We’re looking at doing something that NASA would not necessarily build and operate, but through either commercial public private partnerships or service contract arrangements, quite possibly from multiple providers,” he said.

- In a request for information (RFI) last October, NASA asked for details from potential commercial service providers for lunar communications and navigation. That included not just technical capabilities but also cost estimates and the “potential for partnerships and options for financing” the system.

- Petro said at the April meeting that NASA is still working on an acquisition strategy for LunaNet. “I don’t expect it to be the traditional development and procurement that we’ve done in other cases.”

- NASA is not the only agency looking at commercial approaches to lunar communications and navigation. On May 20, the European Space Agency (ESA) announced it issued study contracts to two consortia, one led by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) and the other by Telespazio, for an initiative called Moonlight. The two groups will spend the next 12 to 18 months studying concepts for satellite networks around the moon for communications and navigation.

- “Moonlight could be a flagship European project to create the first operational comms and navigation system around the moon,” David Parker, ESA’s director of human and robotic exploration, said at a briefing about the contracts.

- The goal, he emphasized, is to create a commercial system, one developed in partnership with ESA but offering services to others. That will be part of the initial Moonlight studies: “the feasibility of the system but also the business case,” Parker said. The studies will be done in time for ESA to decide whether to seek support for the program at its next ministerial meeting in late 2022.

- SSTL has a head start. It is developing a spacecraft called Lunar Pathfinder scheduled for launch in 2024 that will provide commercial communications relay services. It will operate in an elliptical orbit providing coverage over the south polar regions of the moon, using UHF and S-band links with spacecraft on the lunar surface and X-band for communications with Earth.

- “We’re creating this shared communications and navigation network for the moon that we believe will undoubtedly act as a catalyst to inspire more exploration missions,” said Phil Brownett, managing director of SSTL.

- ESA officials said NASA was aware of Moonlight but added that having multiple networks of communications and navigation satellites at the moon could have benefits provided there was some degree of interoperability, like that between the GPS and Galileo satellite navigation systems.

- Petro said NASA also supported interoperability. “We’re promoting this idea of mutually agreed-upon standards among a set of cooperating networks,” he said, which could go beyond communications and navigation to other services, like solar storm warnings. “We think this could be introduced as part of the earliest missions.”

Rent the (Lunar) Runway

- NASA is also examining how it can use services, rather than conventional contracts, for the spacesuits it will need for future Artemis missions. NASA previously announced plans to develop a new spacesuit, called the xEMU (exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit), that astronauts will wear on the lunar surface.

- However, in an April 14 RFI, NASA said it was considering moving to a services model for those suits. One or more companies would produce, own and maintain the suits, with NASA effectively renting them as needed for missions. The same approach could also be used for spacesuits needed for International Space Station spacewalks.

- “We are always looking at ways to lower costs for the taxpayer and focus our efforts and resources on future technology and our bold missions in deep space,” said Mark Kirasich, head of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division. “We hope to receive industry input on the feasibility of shifting our exploration spacewalk acquisition activities to a service-based model like our procurement for commercial cargo and crew services.”

- NASA will continue its own design work on the xEMU suit and share that information with industry, but companies would be able to develop their own designs that meet NASA requirements.

- Responses to the spacesuit RFI were due to NASA at the end of April. A draft request for proposals could be released in mid-June, according to a tentative schedule included in the RFI, with a contract award as soon as the end of the calendar year.

- All these efforts by NASA and other agencies to procure services, rather than spacecraft and other hardware, are driven by the belief that doing so can save time and money for governments and give companies the flexibility to offer similar services to other customers.

- In a June 9 talk in Pittsburgh, after visiting the headquarters of Astrobotic, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, explained that Artemis was pairing science and exploration with the “entrepreneurial spirit” exemplified by Astrobotic and others in the CLPS program.

- “Combining those would create a lunar program that we’ve never seen before and open the path for Americans to go back to the surface of the moon later this decade,” he said.

• June 26, 2021: SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says the company is “shooting for July” for the first orbital launch of the company’s Starship vehicle despite lacking the regulatory approvals needed for such a launch. 14)

- Speaking at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) June 25, Shotwell said the company was pressing ahead with plans for an orbital flight involving the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site.

- “We are headed for our first orbital attempt in the not-too-distant future. We’re shooting for July,” she said. “I am hoping we make it, but we all know this is difficult. We are really on the cusp of flying that system, or at least attempting the first orbital flight of that system, in the very near term.”

- SpaceX last flew a Starship prototype May 5, with the SN15 vehicle flying to an altitude of 10 kilometers before making a successful landing, a milestone that had eluded four previous prototypes in tests between December 2020 and March 2021. While SpaceX originally appeared to be planning a second suborbital flight of that vehicle, it instead moved the vehicle from the launch pad. Another Starship prototype, SN16, has remained at the production site.

- SpaceX has since turned its attention to preparing for the first orbital test flight. In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission May 13, SpaceX outlined the flight plan for the mission, starting with liftoff off from Boca Chica. The Super Heavy booster would land in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast from Boca Chica, while Starship would go into orbit but reenter after less than one orbit, splashing down 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

- That license application stated the flight would take place during a six-month period beginning June 20. However, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has not yet issued a launch license for Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica. The company’s existing license covers only suborbital flights of Starship.

- As a part of the licensing process, the FAA is performing an environmental review of launches from Boca Chica. The agency said in November that the original environmental impact statement for the site, prepared in 2014 when SpaceX was contemplating launching Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, was not applicable to the far larger Starship/Super Heavy vehicles. Some environmental groups had criticized allowing SpaceX to launch Starship vehicles from Boca Chica using the original environmental study.

- That assessment must be completed before the FAA can issue a license to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy flights. The assessment could conclude that such launches would have no significant impact, or that some mitigation measures are needed to allow such launches. It could also conclude that a more detailed environmental impact statement would be required, delaying a decision on the license.

- The FAA has not provided an update on the status of the environmental assessment, which would include publication of a draft version for public comment before a final version. It is unlikely that process could be done in time to support a launch in the near future.

- Shotwell made no mention of the licensing and environmental review process in her brief comments at ISDC, where she was accepting an award from the organization. Later in her remarks, she said the orbital launch attempt was the next big test for Starship. “I never want to predict dates because we’ll still in development, but very soon,” she said.

- Shotwell said she was also “very excited” about the progress on the Starlink program. She said SpaceX will have full global coverage once all the satellites launched to date reach their operational orbits. SpaceX launched the most recent batch of Starlink satellites May 26.

- “Roughly six or so weeks from now we will have full global continuous coverage with the Starlink constellation, which should really help people who are un- or under-served to get broadband internet,” she said.

• May 14, 2021: SpaceX has disclosed details for the first orbital test flight of its next-generation Starship launch system, but the company is still far short of the regulatory approvals needed for the mission. 15)

- SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission May 13 for special temporary authority for communications required to support a Starship test launch from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. The license would cover communications for what the company called an “experimental orbital demo and recovery test of the Starship test vehicle” launching from Boca Chica.

- In an attachment to the application, SpaceX provided the first details about what it calls “Starship Orbital – First Flight.” The mission would involve a launch of the overall Starship vehicle, including the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage, from Boca Chica.

Figure 20: According to a SpaceX application to the FCC, the first orbital test flight of the Starship/Super Heavy system will involve a booster landing in the Gulf of Mexico and a Starship landing in the ocean near Hawaii, to mitigate the risk of a vehicle breakup during reentry (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 20: According to a SpaceX application to the FCC, the first orbital test flight of the Starship/Super Heavy system will involve a booster landing in the Gulf of Mexico and a Starship landing in the ocean near Hawaii, to mitigate the risk of a vehicle breakup during reentry (image credit: SpaceX)

- “SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally,” the company said in the application. “This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design or [concept of operations] after the first flight and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.”

- As outlined in the application, the Super Heavy booster will shut down 169 seconds after liftoff, separating from the Starship upper stage two seconds later. Super Heavy will fly back not to Boca Chica, but instead to a location 32 kilometers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, touching down 495 seconds after liftoff. The application didn’t state if the booster would land on a platform, such as an oil rig SpaceX is converting for such uses, or splash down into the ocean.

- Starship, which ignites its engines five seconds after stage separation, will shut down its engines 521 seconds after liftoff, having achieved orbit. The vehicle, though, will complete less than one full orbit before entering and landing in the Pacific Ocean 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai approximately 90 minutes after liftoff.

- The application notes that SpaceX will perform a “powered, targeted landing” but not on any kind of ship. Instead, it will make “a soft ocean landing.” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a tweet that the company is planning an ocean landing to avoid hazards should the vehicle not survive reentry. “We need to make sure ship won’t break up on reentry, hence deorbit over Pacific,” he wrote.

- The application did not specify when the company expects to perform this launch, beyond a six-month “requested period of operation” that starts June 20.

- SpaceX can’t carry out the launch, though, until it receives a license from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration’s) Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That license will depend on the status of an ongoing environmental assessment of Starship/Super Heavy launch operations from Boca Chica, which fall outside the scope of the original environmental impact statement prepared when SpaceX planned to use the site for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles.

- That assessment is ongoing, and the FAA has not given schedule for completing it. The FAA states on its website that the public will be given an opportunity comment on the draft assessment, which will recommend whether the FAA needs to then prepare a more detailed environmental impact statement. The FAA could otherwise determine there would be no significant impact to the environment from Starship/Super Heavy launches, or that those impacts can be mitigated with appropriate measures, the agency explained in a set of frequently asked questions about the ongoing environmental review.

- “SpaceX must meet all licensing requirements before Starship/Super Heavy can launch,” an FAA spokesman noted May 14.

May 5, 2021: A SpaceX Starship prototype successfully carried out a brief suborbital test flight May 5 after four previous vehicles were destroyed during or shortly after landing. 16) 17)

- The Starship SN15 vehicle lifted off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site at 6:24 p.m. EDT. The vehicle flew to an altitude of approximately 10 kilometers before descending and landing back at the test site six minutes after liftoff.

- There was a fire at the base of the vehicle after landing, similar to what happened with the flight of the Starship SN10 vehicle March 3. That vehicle exploded less than 10 minutes later. On this flight, remotely-operated fire suppression systems appeared to extinguish the fire within several minutes.

- SN10 was one of four Starship prototypes destroyed in test flights between December and March. The most recent vehicle, SN11, exploded when a Raptor engine suffered a “hard start” as it reigniting for its landing burn on a March 30 flight.

- The SN15 Starship prototype “has vehicle improvements across structures, avionics and software, and the engines that will allow more speed and efficiency throughout production and flight,” SpaceX said on its website. Those changes included a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt and a new Raptor engine design and configuration.

- ”This flight includes multiple upgrades and improvements to address the findings from the rapid unplanned disassembly that we experienced on the last flight,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said on the SpaceX webcast of the test flight. “The vehicle also incorporates changes to get us closer to the orbital configuration.”

Figure 21: SpaceX’s Starship SN15 prototype lifts off May 5 on a successful suborbital test flight at Boca Chica, Texas (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
Figure 21: SpaceX’s Starship SN15 prototype lifts off May 5 on a successful suborbital test flight at Boca Chica, Texas (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
Figure 22: Starship SN15 after landing. A fire is visible at the base of the vehicle but was extinguished several minutes later (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
Figure 22: Starship SN15 after landing. A fire is visible at the base of the vehicle but was extinguished several minutes later (image credit: SpaceX webcast)

- SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk seemed satisfied with the flight. “Starship landing nominal!” he tweeted shortly after landing.

- The company has not disclosed if it plans to fly SN15 again. A new prototype, SN16, is nearing completion at the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica.

- Starship serves as the upper stage of SpaceX’s next-generation launch system. On orbital flights Starship will be launched atop a large booster called Super Heavy, which is still under development.

- SpaceX is also developing a version of Starship that will serve as a lunar lander. NASA selected Starship in its Human Landing System (HLS) competition April 16, awarding it a $2.9 billion contract to fund development of the lander version of Starship and one flight to the lunar surface with astronauts on board. That contract is on hold, however, after the two losing bidders, Blue Origin and Dynetics, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office.

- “It’s definitely going to be really helpful,” Musk said at an April 23 NASA press conference after the Crew-2 commercial crew launch, when asked how that HLS contract would help Starship development. “It’s mostly been funded internally thus far, and it’s pretty expensive.”

- “As you can tell if you’ve been watching the videos, we’ve blown up a few of them,” he added. “Excitement guaranteed, one way or another.”

- “It’s a tough vehicle to build because we’re trying to crack this nut of a fully and rapidly reusable rocket,” he said, emphasizing the importance of such reusability to lowering launch costs and increasing flight rates. “If you have rapid reusability, then that is the gateway to the heavens. That’s what we’re trying to get done.”

- “The Starship design can work. It’s just a hard thing to solve, and the support of NASA is very much appreciated in this regard,” he said later in the briefing. “I think it’s going to work.”

• April 6, 2021: SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said an engine on the company’s latest Starship prototype suffered a “hard start” that caused the vehicle to explode when attempting to land on a test flight last week. 18)

- The Starship SN11 vehicle lifted off in dense fog March 30 from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site, flying to 10 kilometers altitude before attempting a landing back at the test site. However, video from the vehicle was lost just as the vehicle’s Raptor engines were reigniting for the landing. Only later, after the fog cleared and people could return to the test site, was it clear the vehicle had exploded, scattering debris around the area.

- In an April 5 tweet, Musk blamed the loss of the vehicle with problems with one of the three Raptor engines. A leak of methane (CH4) fuel in that engine triggered a fire and “fried part of [the] avionics” on the engine, he said, “causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump.”

- A “hard start” is aerospace terminology for a circumstance when there is excess propellant in an engine’s combustion chamber when it is ignited. This creates a pressure spike that can damage an engine or, in a worst-case scenario, trigger an explosion.

- Onboard video from Starship SN11 shown on SpaceX’s webcast of the launch does show a fire on the exterior of one of the Raptor engines starting about 25 seconds after liftoff. The fire burns for about five seconds before the webcast cuts to other camera angles, so it’s unclear long the fire lasted and if that was the incident that damaged the avionics. The fire did not appear to affect the vehicle’s performance on ascent.

- All four of the Starship suborbital test flights since December have ended with the loss of the vehicle. The Starship SN8 vehicle exploded upon landing in December, which Musk later blamed to a loss of pressure in a “header” propellant tank at the top of the vehicle that deprived the engines of enough propellant to land intact.

- The SN9 vehicle, which launched Feb. 2, exploded upon landing as well. One of the vehicle’s Raptor engines failed to ignite for the landing, causing it to hit the ground too fast and at an angle.

- The SN10 vehicle appeared to land intact on its March 3 flight, only to explode less than 10 minutes later. Musk later said that bubbles of helium, added to the header fuel tank to maintain pressure for landing after the SN8 crash, were ingested by the engines, preventing them from generating enough thrust to land safely. The vehicle landed at a high speed, causing damage that led to the explosion minutes later.

- Musk tweeted that the methane leak is being fixed “six ways to Sunday” but did not elaborate. His tweets have been the primary source of public information on the status of Starship development, with SpaceX itself releasing little information. For example, after the SN11 flight the company stated on its website, “Shortly after the landing burn started, SN11 experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly.” It offered no further details.

- The next Starship vehicle in development, called SN15, incorporates what Musk said last week are “hundreds of design improvements” to its structure, avionics and engines. “Hopefully, one of those improvements covers this problem,” he said shortly after the SN11 explosion. “If not, then retrofit will add a few more days.”

• March 30, 2021: SpaceX launched its fourth Starship prototype in less than four months March 30, only to have the vehicle apparently crash once again. 19)

- The Starship SN11 vehicle lifted off at approximately 9 a.m. Eastern from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site, despite heavy fog that made it all but impossible to see the vehicle ascend. The SpaceX webcast of the flight relied on video from onboard cameras.

- The flight appeared to go as planned initially, with the vehicle going up to 10 kilometers altitude, then descending back to the landing pad. The onboard video, though, stopped 5 minutes and 49 seconds after liftoff, just as the vehicle reignited its Raptor engines for landing.

- “It looks like we’ve had another exciting test,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said on the webcast, several minutes after the loss of video. “We’re going to have to find out from the team what happened.”

- He did not confirm that the vehicle had been lost, but independent video of the landing showed debris falling around the test site at the time of landing. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk later acknowledged the vehicle was destroyed, tweeting that “At least the crater is in the right place!”

- “Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn’t needed,” he added. “Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.”

- The flight was the fourth of a Starship prototype to an altitude of 10 kilometers or more since early December. All four of those vehicles were lost either on landing or shortly thereafter. On the previous test, of Starship SN10 March 3, the vehicle appeared to land intact, only to explode less than 10 minutes later.

- This flight was delayed a day after an FAA safety inspector was not able to get to Boca Chica before the window closed for the test. A revision to the FAA’s license for that series of Starship tests, dated March 12, requires an FAA inspector to be at Boca Chica for the tests.

- The FAA added that provision after SpaceX violated conditions of its launch license on the SN8 test flight in December, which took place even after the FAA denied SpaceX’s request for a waiver for maximum allowed risk to the uninvolved public. While that flight caused no damage outside of SpaceX’s test facility, the FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation into the incident and delayed approval of the next test flight, SN9, in early February.

- On March 25, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and its aviation subcommittee, respectively, wrote to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson about that incident. “Given the high-risk nature of the industry, we are disappointed that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action,” they wrote.

- The FAA, in a statement late March 30, said it would oversee SpaceX’s mishap investigation, as it has done in previous Starship mishaps. “The FAA will approve the final mishap investigation report and any corrective actions SpaceX must take before return to flight is authorized,” the agency said.

- The FAA added it was looking into reports that debris from Starship SN11 was found several kilometers from the test site, well outside the exclusion zone for the launch. People attempting to watch the launch from the southern tip of South Padre Island reported finding lightweight debris, but it was not clear that, assuming it was from SN11, it came from the crash itself or fell off in earlier phases of flight. The FAA noted that there were no reports of damage or injuries from that debris.

• March 3, 2021: SpaceX launched a prototype of its Starship next-generation vehicle March 3, landing it safely only to have the vehicle explode minutes later. 20)

- The Starship SN10 vehicle lifted off from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site at about 6:15 p.m. EST. A launch attempt three hours earlier was aborted at engine ignition because of a “slightly conservative high thrust limit,” company founder and chief executive Elon Musk tweeted.

- The SN10 flight followed a similar profile to two previous one, by SN8 on Dec. 9 and SN9 on Feb. 2. The vehicle flew to a planned peak altitude of 10 kilometers, shutting down its three Raptor engines in sequence during the ascent. The vehicle then performed a “belly flop” maneuver to a horizontal orientation to descend back to its landing pad.

- On the two previous Starship test flights, SpaceX had problems reigniting two Raptor engines needed for a powered landing after flipping back to a vertical orientation. SpaceX changed the procedure on this landing attempt, igniting all three and then shutting down two as needed for the landing.

- That appeared to work. The vehicle touched down on the pad softly, rather than crash and explode, about six minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff. Video showed that the vehicle was leaning slightly but otherwise appeared intact — initially.

- “Third time’s the charm, as the saying goes,” John Insprucker, the SpaceX engineer who hosted the company’s webcast of the flight, said. “A beautiful soft landing of Starship on the landing pad in Boca Chica.”

- SpaceX terminated the webcast at that point, but independent webcasts showed that, about eight minutes after landing, there was an explosion at the base of the vehicle. The explosion flung the vehicle into the air, crashing back down on the pad several seconds later. Neither SpaceX nor Musk immediately commented on the explosion, but webcasts showed hoses spraying water at the base of the vehicle in the minutes before the explosion.

- Insprucker noted the next prototype, SN11, is “ready to roll out to the pad in the very near future.”

- The flight came one day after Starship’s first announced customer revealed new plans for his mission. In September 2018, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa said he had purchased a flight of the vehicle, then known as BFR, for a circumlunar trip in 2023. On that mission, called “dearMoon,” Maezawa would fly with up to eight artists.

- Maezawa updated his plans for dearMoon March 2, announcing a contest open to the general public to fly eight people on that mission, still scheduled for 2023. “I began to think that maybe every single person who is doing something creative could be called an artist,” he said in a video. “If you see yourself as an artist, then you’re an artist.”

Figure 23: SpaceX's Starship SN10 prototype prepares to land after a flight to 10 km. The vehicle landed intact, only to explode minutes later (image credit: SpaceX)
Figure 23: SpaceX's Starship SN10 prototype prepares to land after a flight to 10 km. The vehicle landed intact, only to explode minutes later (image credit: SpaceX)

- The project’s website has opened up preregistrations for the contest, which will be followed by an “assignment” and interviews, with selections of the crew expected by the end of June. The project offered no additional details about that selection process, or any restrictions based on age, physical condition or nationality. The project did not respond to questions from SpaceNews on those and related topics about the project.

- Maezawa said a total of 10 to 12 people will fly on the mission, but did not disclose who those beyond the eight selected in the competition would be.

- Musk, who also appears in the video, said he believed Starship would be ready to carry people around the moon by 2023. “I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023, and that it will be safe enough for human transport by 2023,” he said.

- “I’m a little scared,” Maezawa admitted in the video, “but I’m more curious and I trust Elon and the SpaceX team, their technological prowess and teamwork.”

• February 2, 2021: A second prototype of SpaceX’s Starship reusable launch vehicle performed a suborbital flight Feb. 2, only to crash while landing. 21)

- The Starship SN9 vehicle lifted off at about 3:25 p.m. Eastern from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. SpaceX planned to fly the vehicle to an altitude of 10 kilometers before landing on a pad at the test site.

- The liftoff and ascent of the vehicle went as expected, according to commentary on the SpaceX webcast by company engineer John Insprucker. The vehicle reached the 10-kilometer mark four minutes after liftoff and, after hovering briefly, flipped to a horizontal orientation to glide back to the landing pad.

- As it neared the pad, Starship flipped back to the vertical and ignited its engines. However, only one of the three Raptor engines ignited, and the vehicle appeared to swing past the vertical. The vehicle crashed at close to a 45-degree angle and exploded 6 minutes and 26 seconds after liftoff.

- The flight was almost identical to Starship SN8’s flight Dec. 9. That vehicle made what appeared to be a largely successful flight until landing, when an engine failed to ignite and the vehicle came in too quickly, exploding as it hit the pad. However, on that flight the vehicle was in the proper vertical orientation for landing, rather than at an angle as with SN9’s attempted landing.

- “We had again another great flight up to the 10-kilometer apogee,” Insprucker said on the webcast after the crash. “We demonstrated the ability to transition the engines to the landing propellant tanks. The subsonic reentry looked very good and stable like we saw again last December.”

- “And again, we’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit,” he added, emphasizing that the launch was a test flight.

- SpaceX received approval for the flight from the Federal Aviation Administration less than 24 hours earlier. The agency suspended launches from Boca Chica after SpaceX’s SN8 flight. SpaceX had sought a waiver to a maximum public risk requirement in its launch license, but proceeded with the flight even though the FAA rejected the waiver request.

- In a statement issued several hours after the test, the FAA said it would oversee the investigation into the SN9 crash. “Although this was an uncrewed test flight, the investigation will identify the root cause of today’s mishap and possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops.”

- Depending on the outcome of the analysis in the SN9 crash, SpaceX could move ahead quickly in the overall Starship test program. The next prototype, SN10, arrived at the test site Jan. 29. Insprucker said that SN10 is being prepared for a “similar flight later this month.”

Figure 24: SpaceX's Starship SN9 vehicle explodes after crashing at the end of a test flight Feb. 2 at the company's Boca Chica, Texas, test site (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
Figure 24: SpaceX's Starship SN9 vehicle explodes after crashing at the end of a test flight Feb. 2 at the company's Boca Chica, Texas, test site (image credit: SpaceX webcast)

• January 29, 2021: A test flight of SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle is on hold as the company awaits approval from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), a delay that has publicly aggravated the company’s chief executive. 22)

- SpaceX had planned to perform a suborbital flight of its Starship SN9 vehicle at its Boca Chica, Texas, test site Jan. 28. The vehicle would have made a flight similar to that by the SN8 vehicle Dec. 9, this time going to an altitude of 10 kilometers before landing back at Boca Chica.

- However, temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) closing airspace around the test site were unexpectedly lifted around the middle of the day, even as SpaceX was preparing the vehicle for the flight. A source familiar with the discussions between the FAA and SpaceX said that the agency requested additional information about the vehicle and flight plan before giving final approval.

- SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk berated the FAA for the delay. “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” he tweeted. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”

- The company proceeded with launch preparations Jan. 28, leaving some to wonder if the company might perform a launch without a TFR in place or other FAA approvals. That turned out to be a wet dress rehearsal, with the vehicle fueled but the countdown halted before engine ignition.

- A second launch attempt Jan. 29 did not get nearly as far. An FAA air traffic advisory early in the day stated that the launch had been canceled, although the TFR remained in place. By midmorning, though, SpaceX said it was now targeting no earlier than Feb. 1 for the SN9 launch.

- Neither SpaceX nor FAA have disclosed additional details about the issue preventing FAA approval for the launch. “We will continue working with SpaceX to resolve outstanding safety issues before we approve the next test flight,” FAA spokesperson Steven Kuhn told SpaceNews Jan. 29.

- “The FAA will continue to work with SpaceX to evaluate additional information provided by the company as part of its application to modify its launch license,” the FAA said in a statement late Jan. 29. “While we recognize the importance of moving quickly to foster growth and innovation in commercial space, the FAA will not compromise its responsibility to protect public safety. We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements.”

- The conflict between the FAA and SpaceX stands in contrast to the FAA’s public stance of working constructively with industry. That has included a streamlining of launch and reentry regulations the FAA concluded last fall. Those new regulations take effect 90 days after their official publication in the Federal Register Dec. 10.

- At an appearance Jan. 26 at a space investment webinar by IPO Edge, Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said he understood the industry’s desire to move quickly. “As soon as that rocket’s ready to go and that payload’s ready to go, they want to go. So that we don’t become an impediment to the success of U.S. companies, we, as the primary regulator in this industry, have to be ready as well.”

Figure 25: SpaceX's Starship SN8 prototype shortly after liftoff from Boca Chica, Texas, Dec. 9 2020 (image credit: SpaceX webcast)
Figure 25: SpaceX's Starship SN8 prototype shortly after liftoff from Boca Chica, Texas, Dec. 9 2020 (image credit: SpaceX webcast)

- Monteith said he was willing to talk directly with launch company executives if there were regulatory issues. “CEOs and presidents of companies also have my direct line. They can reach out to me directly if our teams are miscommunicating or not communicating well with each other,” he said. Issues that might take staff “weeks or months” to resolve, he said, “we can sometimes fix in a single phone call.”

- “While nobody likes to be regulated, it’s important,” he said. “For one, it keeps everyone safe, and number two, it provides that stable environment for investors.”

• As early as Monday, February 1, 2021, the SpaceX team will attempt a high-altitude flight test of Starship serial number 9 (SN9) – the second high-altitude suborbital flight test of a Starship prototype from our site in Cameron County, Texas. Similar to the high-altitude flight test of Starship serial number 8 (SN8), SN9 will be powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 km in altitude. SN9 will perform a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent. 23)

The Starship prototype will descend under active aerodynamic control, accomplished by independent movement of two forward and two aft flaps on the vehicle. All four flaps are actuated by an onboard flight computer to control Starship’s attitude during flight and enable precise landing at the intended location. SN9’s Raptor engines will then reignite as the vehicle attempts a landing flip maneuver immediately before touching down on the landing pad adjacent to the launch mount.

A controlled aerodynamic descent with body flaps and vertical landing capability, combined with in-space refilling, are critical to landing Starship at destinations across the solar system where prepared surfaces or runways do not exist, and returning to Earth. This capability will enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.

There will be a live feed of the flight test available here that will start a few minutes prior to liftoff. Given the dynamic schedule of development testing, stay tuned to our social media channels for updates as we move toward SpaceX’s second high-altitude flight test of Starship!

• September 1, 2020: Starship is designed to be a long-duration cargo and, eventually, passenger-carrying spacecraft. 24) The development of the Starship began around 2012.

- SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the company is making “good progress” on its next-generation Starship launch vehicle despite delays in the schedule of test flights of the vehicle.

- In an interview broadcast during the Humans to Mars Summit by the advocacy group Explore Mars Aug. 31, Musk emphasized the progress the company has made not on test flights of the vehicle but instead development of production facilities for Starship at Boca Chica, Texas.

- “We’re making good progress. The thing that we’re really making progress on with Starship is the production system,” he said, referring to the growing campus at Boca Chica. “A year ago there was almost nothing there and now we’ve got quite a lot of production capability.”

- Those facilities have cranked out a series of prototypes of Starship, which is intended to serve as the upper stage of the overall launch system. Musk said that construction will start this week on “booster prototype one,” a reference to the Super Heavy first stage of the system.

- That production capability, he argued, is essential to the long-term development of the overall launch system. “Making a prototype of something is, I think, relatively easy,” he said. “But building the production system so that you can build ultimately hundreds or thousands of Starships, that’s the hard part.”

- That focus on production belies the lack of progress on actual testing of the vehicle. At a September 2019 event at Boca Chica, Musk, with a Starship prototype standing behind him, said that the vehicle would fly to an altitude of 20 kilometers in one or two months. “I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months,” he said, a schedule he said at the time was accurate to “within a few months.”

- Eleven months later, a Starship prototype has flown only once: an Aug. 4 “hop” test of a prototype known as SN5 that flew to an estimated altitude of 150 meters before landing on a nearby pad. Another prototype, SN6, was being prepared for a similar hop test Aug. 30 that was scrubbed for undisclosed reasons. Four other prototypes were destroyed in ground tests prior to the SN5 flight.

- Musk, asked when Starship would make its first orbital flight, said, “Probably next year.” He didn’t specify if that would be the Starship vehicle alone or the full stack with the Super Heavy booster. “I hope we do a lot of flights. The first ones might not work. This is uncharted territory. Nobody’s ever made a fully reusable orbital rocket.”

- He later said he expected the launch system, ultimately intended to transport people to Mars, will do “hundreds of missions with satellites before we put people on board.”

- Musk quoted a cost estimate for developing Starship of $5 billion, a figure he has stated in the past. He played down the NASA Human Landing System award the company received in April, valued at $135 million, to study using the Starship system as a means for landing NASA astronauts on the moon for the Artemis program. “Definitely the NASA support is appreciated,” he said. “It’s helpful, but it’s not a gamechanger.”

- The overall design of the system is still evolving. While SpaceX previously described Super Heavy as having 31 Raptor engines, Musk said the final number may be less. “We might have fewer than 31 engines on the booster, because we’re trying to simplify the configuration,” he said. “It might be 28 engines. It’s still a lot of engines.”


More background of this giant commercial SpaceX program can be found in the ”Starship development history” of Wikipedia. 25)



1) ”Starship Users Guide,” SpaceX, Revision 1, March 2020, URL:

2) ”Starship SN9 High-Altitude Flight Test,” SpaceX, 2021, URL:

3) Jeff Foust, ”Starship booster test ends in fiery anomaly,” SpaceNews, 12 July 2022, URL:

4) Jeff Foust, ”FAA environmental review to allow Starship orbital launches after changes,” SpaceNews, 13 June 2022, URL:

5) Jeff Foust,”FAA again delays completion of Starship environmental review,” SpaceNews, 26 March 2022, URL:

6) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX goes all-in on Starship configuration for second-gen Starlink,” SpaceNews, 10 January 2022, URL:

7) Jeff Foust, ”FAA delays completion of Starship environmental review,” SpaceNews, 28 December 2021, URL:

8) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX grapples with Raptor production problems,” SpaceNews, 01 December 2021, URL:

9) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX Boca Chica environmental review draws strong public support and criticism,” SpaceNews, 22 October 2021, URL:

10) Jeff Foust, ”Senate appropriators direct NASA to select second Artemis lunar lander,” SpaceNews, 19 October 2021, URL:

11) Jeff Foust, ”FAA releases draft environmental report on SpaceX Starship orbital launches,” SpaceNews, 20 September 2021, URL:

12) Jeff Foust,” SpaceX surges Starship work despite FAA environmental review uncertainty,” SpaceNews, 4 August 2021, URL:

13) Jeff Foust, ”Lunar Exploration as a Service: From landers to spacesuits, NASA is renting rather than owning,” SpaceNews, 05 July 2021, URL:

14) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX aiming for July for Starship orbital launch despite regulatory reviews,” SpaceNews, 26 June 2021, URL:

15) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX outlines first orbital Starship test flight,” SpaceNews, 14 May 2021, URL:

16) Jeff Foust, ”Starship survives test flight,” SpaceNews, 5 May 2021, URL:

17) ”Flight Test Starship SN15,” SpaceX, 5 May 2021, URL:

18) Jeff Foust, ”Engine explosion blamed for latest Starship crash,” SpaceNews, 6 April 2021, URL:

19) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX crashes another Starship prototype,” SpaceNews, 30 March 2021, URL:

20) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX launches and lands Starship prototype, which later explodes,” SpaceNews, 3 March 2021, URL:

21) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX Starship crashes after suborbital flight,” SpaceNews, 2 February 2021, URL:

22) Jeff Foust, ”FAA reviews delay SpaceX Starship test,” Space News, 29 January 2021, URL:

23) ”Starship SN9 High-altitude flight test, - Upcoming Test,” SpaceX, January 2021, SpaceX,

24) Jeff Foust, ”Musk emphasizes progress in Starship production over testing,” SpaceNews, 1 September 2020, URL:

25) ”Starship development history,” Wikipedia, URL:

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (


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