After months of planning, SpaceX is nearing the critical test phase of its massive Starship vehicle launch campaign.
During the hours of 8 a.m. CT (14:00 UTC) to 8 p.m. CT on Monday, the company evacuated nearby residents from the launch site in South Texas, near Boca Chica Beach. If everything goes as planned, the company will load cryogenic methane and oxygen into both the Starship upper stage and the Super Heavy booster later today. The countdown will continue until just before the transfer of internal power to the launch vehicle.
Today there will be no engine ignition. However, on September 8, 2022, the upper stage of this vehicle, Ship 24, successfully completed a static fire test of its six Raptor rocket engines. During November activity, 14 of the 33 Raptor engines on the first stage, Booster 7, were tested.
These two vehicles are now fully stacked on the launch pad in preparation for today’s critical fueling test. While not as dramatic as a test firing, “wet dress rehearsals” are required to demonstrate the safe fueling of such a large amount of propellant at once. It is one of the most significant remaining milestones before an orbital launch attempt, which could happen in a month or two.
Following a successful wet dress rehearsal, SpaceX engineers will analyse the data, and if everything looks good, the plan will most likely move forward to the final major pre-flight test. To prepare for the full static firing of all 33 Raptor engines on Booster 7, SpaceX will first remove the upper stage of the Starship as a precaution in case something goes wrong during testing.
The vehicles would be re-stacked ahead of a launch attempt after the static fire test, which could take several attempts due to the unprecedented number of large rocket engines firing simultaneously. If all goes well, this could happen as soon as March.
Of course, things could go wrong, and SpaceX may end up using newer iterations of Starship hardware for the orbital test flight. Already, “Ship 25” has been moved to a launch mount for static fire testing in South Texas. Two more Starships are under construction, with parts of Ship 28 and Ship 29 spotted by observers in South Texas. SpaceX has also completed cryogenic testing on Booster 9 and is nearly finished stacking Booster 10.
SpaceX hasn’t launched a rocket from South Texas in a long time. On May 5, 2021, its final prototype, “SN15,” flew for six minutes. This was the first prototype to achieve a soft landing after flying to an altitude of 10 km, demonstrating key technology for the Starship design.
Since then, SpaceX has made significant investments in launch infrastructure and production facilities at the Starbase site in South Texas, likely amounting to $1 billion to $2 billion. Although it was willing to take risks with the Starship prototypes, the full stack of Super Heavy and Starship carries significantly more propellant, and a launch site accident would be catastrophic.
As a result, SpaceX is proceeding with caution toward its orbital test flight. The goal is to ensure that the rocket passes over the launch site without damaging any valuable infrastructure. The methodical wet dress rehearsal on Monday is an important part of that test campaign.
While SpaceX will not be livestreaming Monday’s testing, several private streamers, including NASA Spaceflight and LabPadre, will be there to keep you updated as the rocket turns white and frosty.