SpaceX and Elon Musk are eager to show the world that the first so-called “full stack” Starship prototype is nearing completion in Texas.
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“29 Raptor engines and 4 grid fins have been installed on Super Heavy ahead of first orbital flight,” the company tweeted Monday along with photos.
Super Heavy is the massive booster created to launch Starship beyond Earth. So far, we’ve just seen Starship prototypes lift off on their own from the SpaceX Starbase development center at Boca Chica, Texas. To actually make it to orbit, Super Heavy has to enter the equation.
For those keeping track, 29 engines is two more than SpaceX uses for Falcon Heavy launches. The Heavy utilizes three Falcon 9 rockets, each containing nine Merlin engines. Raptors are also designed to deliver more than twice the thrust of each Merlin, so it’s quite the power upgrade in Musk’s next-generation launch system. You need that kind of power if you’re trying to land on the moon for NASA and eventually on Mars.
SpaceX is planning to conduct its first orbital flight test for Starship using Super Heavy by launching the system from Starbase, making a quick trip to orbit and then attempting a soft splashdown landing of Starship in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii.
After launch, Super Heavy will separate and attempt to land off shore of Starbase in the Gulf of Mexico on a landing platform created from a modified oil drilling rig.
Originally, comments from Musk, SpaceX officials and company filings suggested this test could happen as soon as July, but it soon became apparent this was a very optimistic target.
Now, even as Super Heavy and Starship appear fully stacked, it’s unclear how soon SpaceX can complete the necessary testing and get all the required approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration for launch.
Federal law requires the completion of an environmental review before the first orbital flight from Starbase, a process which can take several months or even longer.
“SpaceX must meet all licensing requirements before Starship/Super Heavy can launch,” an FAA spokesperson said via email in May. “There will be opportunities for public comment through the environmental review process.”
Musk has sparred with the FAA on social media about its licensing process in the past and even launched an early Starship prototype without the proper license in place last year. The move led to some stern words from the agency and an internal review that delayed the following Starship test, but ultimately SpaceX received little more than the proverbial slap on the wrist for the violation.
Even without the green light to launch anywhere on the horizon, Musk and SpaceX are all too happy to show off Starship’s progress. Whether or not it will do anything to speed up the bureaucracy remains to be seen.