Musk said the business was finalising preparations for both the spacecraft and its launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, ahead of a campaign of up to a dozen test flights in 2022, addressing at a joint meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board and Board on Physics and Astronomy on Nov. 17.
“We’re on the verge of our first orbital launch,” he remarked. “We’re hoping to perform our maiden orbital trip in January.” Later in the conversation, he changed his mind and said the flight would take place “in January or perhaps February.”
According to regulatory papers, the trip would put the Starship into orbit, but it would only orbit once before reentering and crashing down in the Pacific Ocean approximately 100 kilometres off the Hawaiian island of Kauai. The Starship spacecraft and its Super Heavy rocket are now finished, and the launch pad and tower should be finished this month, he added. In December, there will be “a slew of exams.”
“There’s a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful, but I think we’ll make a lot of progress,” he said. Later, he said he wasn’t sure Starship would reach orbit on its first flight, “but I’m confident we’ll get there next year, and we intend to have a high flight rate next year.”
Musk then projected that SpaceX will try a dozen, if not more, Starship launches next year. “Right now, the engine production rate is the largest restriction on how many vehicles we can construct,” he stated, citing the fact that Super Heavy requires 29 Raptor engines now, and 33 eventually, with six on Starship. The business is constructing a new plant in Texas to produce Raptors in large quantities.
Operational trips might begin in 2023 if SpaceX is successful in recovering and reusing Starship during the test flights. “We intend to complete the test flight program next year, which means that it’s probably ready for valuable payloads — not for testing, basically, but actual real payloads — in 2023. So quite soon.”
That deadline, however, is contingent on the Federal Aviation Administration granting regulatory permission. “We expect the FAA to approve our licence by the end of this year,” Musk stated.
The FAA is still working on the environmental study that is required for Starship launches. The FAA said on November 15 that it was reviewing over 17,000 written comments and 121 spoken remarks received at two public sessions. According to the Department of Transportation’s “permitting dashboard,” the environmental evaluation should be completed by the end of December, allowing the FAA to continue with issuing a licence.
However, the environmental review process might find that further work is needed, such as a full-scaled environmental impact study. A licence for Starship launches would be delayed by months, if not years, as a result of this.
Musk spent more than an hour addressing questions from board members on a wide variety of issues, from SpaceX’s choice of stainless steel for Starship to challenges to human civilization. Musk was slated to participate at the virtual meeting for a half-hour.
“This is a very profound vehicle,” he said of Starship. “Nothing really like it is being developed, and I don’t think anything quite like it has been even proposed. But it has the potential to affect human destiny in a very profound way.”