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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

SpaceX is gearing up for the second flight of Starship

SpaceX founder Elon Musk at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 2020.  (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
By Christian Davenport Washington Post

Before the world’s largest rocket blew up its launchpad on lift off, scattering debris and shrapnel into the Texas shoreline, before it started tumbling and exploded in midair, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk had a prediction on how the first test flight of his Starship rocket would go: “excitement guaranteed.”

Now, more than six months later – after the first Starship flight spawned an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, a lawsuit by environmentalists and hope by NASA officials that Musk’s towering, stainless-steel creation will be reliable enough to one day carry the next astronauts to the surface of the moon – SpaceX is getting ready to launch Starship again.

The FAA still has to issue a launch license, but SpaceX recently said in a statement that Starship “could launch as soon as mid-November, pending regulatory approval.” NASA officials have said they are eager for SpaceX to renew testing.

The company has added a water suppression system to its launchpad, which should help dampen the thunderous vibrations caused by the rocket’s staggering 33 first-stage engines. It has also added a new way for the stages of the rocket to separate, and it’s run multiple engine tests to continue to understand how they will perform in flight. Still, despite the upgrades, a successful launch to orbit from SpaceX’s private launch facility in South Texas is not guaranteed. But Musk’s earlier prediction of excitement still holds true.

The significance of the test flight goes well beyond the combustible violence of rocketry as performance art. It is a key milestone for SpaceX as it tries to, again, upend the space industry, and for NASA as well. The space agency is investing $4 billion into the development of the rocket and spacecraft, and it has placed the vehicle at the center of its campaign to return astronauts to the moon for the first time since 1972.

While future moon-bound astronauts will launch on NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and fly to the moon in the Orion capsule, Starship is the spacecraft that is supposed ferry them to and from the lunar surface. Officially, NASA’s plan is to land astronauts there by 2025. But that timeline is likely to slip, perhaps significantly. One of the concerns is that Starship requires its propellant tank to be refilled while in Earth’s orbit by a fleet of Starship tankers in an immensely complicated choreography. None of those tankers has been launched – or built. And before NASA allows its astronauts to board Starship, SpaceX will have had to have flown the vehicle many times to prove its reliability.

Recently, NASA’s Inspector General cited the return to the moon as the space agency’s biggest challenge. “NASA officials are concerned that the technical difficulties associated with SpaceX’s Starship will delay the mission currently scheduled for December 2025 to sometime in 2026,” the IG said in a report. “The extent of delays will depend on when SpaceX can resume flight testing.”

SpaceX has been grounded since the first test flight in April. That flight sent chunks of the launchpad into nearby wetlands and along the shoreline, though no one was injured.

The FAA said in a recent statement that it closed the safety portion of its investigation focusing “on issues that affect public health and safety of property.” The environmental portion, done in consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is not yet complete, the FAA said. “We have not made a final license determination. We will let you know when that day comes,” Steve Kulm, an FAA spokesman said in a statement to The Post on Thursday.

The delays have frustrated SpaceX. “We’ve been ready to fly for a few weeks now,” Tim Hughes, SpaceX’s senior vice president, recently told The Post. “And we’d very much like the government to be able to move as quickly as we are. If you’re able to build a rocket faster than the government can regulate it, that’s upside down, and that needs to be addressed. So we think some regulatory reforms are needed.”

NASA is also hoping Starship will resume its testing program quickly.

“It is essential to us that SpaceX be able to test their rocket,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a recent interview with The Post. “I am given to believe that they are going to get the approval of Fish and Wildlife and therefore the FAA. I don’t know the timing but of course a major delay would be of very considerable concern to NASA.”

Part of that concern is driven by what he said was “the space race of getting to the moon before China. And so of course we’re counting on SpaceX.”

Starship is a 400-feet tall monster with first stage known as the Super Heavy booster and the second stage Starship spacecraft. It has far more thrust than NASA’s SLS rocket and is the most powerful rocket ever to fly. Unlike the SLS, which falls into the ocean after liftoff, Starship is designed to be fully reusable. The booster would fly back to its landing site, slowing itself down by firing its engines, as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket does. Starship would be caught by a pair of chopstick-like arms that extend from the launchpad.

Musk originally envisioned the vehicle to be used to help humanity get to Mars, which remains SpaceX’s ultimate goal. But in addition to deep-space exploration, SpaceX also intends to use Starship to launch its next-generation Starlink internet satellites, which are larger and heavier and require Starship’s greater power. Starlink beams the internet to ground stations, allowing users in remote areas to connect to the web.

The flight profile for the upcoming test is similar to what SpaceX hoped to achieve last time. The rocket will lift off from SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, a hamlet of marsh and wetlands at the southernmost tip of Texas. If all goes well, the Starship spacecraft will fly nearly to orbit as it circles the globe, eventually splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, near Kauai, Hawaii.

The company is going to try a different approach to the way the rocket stages its flight, which would be one of the test’s key milestones. On its Falcon 9 rockets, the booster and second stage separate and then the second stage engine fires. On Starship, the engines of the second stage will fire during separation in an attempt to generate more power. “Obviously that results in kind of blasting the booster, so you’ve got to protect the top of the boost stage from getting incinerated by the upper stage engines,” Musk said in June.

Last time, the flight did not get that far. Instead, several engines failed at liftoff and a few more during the flight. The rocket started tumbling and was destroyed about four minutes into the flight at an altitude of about 24 miles.

One of the issues the test uncovered was that the flight termination system, which is designed to destroy the rocket if it veers off course, took too long to activate, about 40 seconds. That was one of the safety issues that the FAA highlighted in its investigation. SpaceX “must demonstrate that any ground safety and flight hazards do not pose unacceptable risk to the public during licensed activities,” the FAA said after the rocket exploded.

Before the launch, Musk had said that the chances of failure were high. And SpaceX said after the launch that “with a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today that will help us improve on future flights of Starship.”

Musk predicted in late April that the next booster would have some “significant reliability improvements.” Starship, he said, has “close to a 100 percent chance of reaching orbit within 12 months.” But he added: “I don’t want to tempt fate – knock on wood.”