Elon Musk’s estimated window for when the first orbital launch of a Starship prototype from Boca Chica might happen is a wide one.
“A *successful* orbital flight is probably between 1 and 12 months from now,” the SpaceX founder and CEO tweeted Aug. 2 in response to a query from a Twitter follower.
It could be interpreted to mean that Musk believes one or more unsuccessful orbital flights may come before a successful one within that time frame. Whatever the case, the prototype currently slated to make the inaugural orbital flight is Starship SN24. SN stands for “serial number.” The ship, fitted with six of SpaceX’s liquid methane/liquid oxygen-powered Raptor 2 engines, was rolled down S.H. 4 the 1.5 miles from SpaceX’s rocket yard to the launch pad on May 27.
The Super Heavy booster (BN7) intended to push it into orbit was returned to the launch site on Aug. 6., following repairs after the booster was damaged by an explosion and fire during an “engine spin start test” on June 11. The test involves pushing fuel through the engine systems without igniting it.
“Going forward, we won’t do a spin start test with all 33 engines at once,” Musk tweeted.
BN7 was lifted onto its orbital launch mount on Aug. 6 with only 20 engines fitted for now. Testing continues on the SN24’s and BN7’s engines in preparation for the first orbital launch, which could happen next month or a year from now, according to Musk.
The Federal Aviation Administration to date has not approved the launch, though the agency on June 13 did release a mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) with the long-delayed release of its Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) of SpaceX’s long-range plans for Starship development at Boca Chica.
SpaceX has already built 480-foot launch/integration tower equipped with robotic arms for grabbing a returning Super Heavy as it lands. Musk has called the tower as much of an engineering feat as Starship/Super Heavy.
The FONSI was a necessary condition for granting a launch license, though the FAA also said it would require SpaceX to undertake more than 75 separate actions to mitigate environmental impacts from proposed orbital launches.
The agency also stipulated that closures of S.H. 4 and Boca Chica beach — long a source of frustration for beachgoers and fishermen — would not be allowed on 18 identified holidays, while weekend restrictions are to be limited to no more than five weekends per year. The FAA said it would also require actions to mitigate impacts on fish, wildlife and vegetation in addition to resources under the protection of the National Historic Preservation Act.
The PEA is just one factor in whether the agency issues a launch license, according to the FAA.
“SpaceX also must meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements before a license is issued for any launch activities,” the agency said on June 13.
Meanwhile, a launch/integration tower at Cape Canaveral identical to the one at Boca Chica is nearing completion at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and NASA is soliciting public feedback for an Environmental Assessment of SpaceX’s plans to expand its footprint there by up to 100 acres, according to Spectrum News 13 in Brevard County, Fla.
The media outlet on July 27 quoted Don Dankert, in charge of compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act at KSC, as saying is pursuing the expansion to support operations related to its Falcon and Falcon Heavy rockets “as well as the future of Starship.”
During a Feb. 10 live presentation at Boca Chica, in response to questions from the Brownsville Herald, Musk said he sees KSC as Starship’s “main operational launch site” while Boca Chica is well suited to be the Starship development program’s advanced research-and-development site.
“So it’s like where we would try out new designs and new versions of the rocket,” Musk said.
He also indicated that Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica proper could be limited, and that in the long run the plan is to launch offshore as well as from KSC.
“We’ve got these two converted oil rigs that are going to be turned into orbital launch sites, and they can be moved around the world, Musk said. “I think there could be quite a few of those.
“I think about … what would really work for long distance. Because the rocket is quite loud you want to be, I don’t know, 20 miles away from a major city, or 30 miles away from a major city just so you’re not disturbing people too much. I think most of the launch sites long term will be kind of ocean- or sea-based ports.”
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