SpaceX is about to hold a wet dress rehearsal of the Starship launch system from the Starbase site in southeastern Texas, a major milestone in CEO Elon Musk’s quest to take long-distance interplanetary transport from science fiction to reality.
It’s the strongest signal yet that Starship’s first orbital flight test may be imminent. The wet dress is a critical series of prelaunch tests, including the loading of propellant from both the upper stage and the booster, and a countdown to about T-10 seconds, or just before the engine fires. If no major problems turn up during testing, the next step would be “destacking”, or the separation of the Starship’s second stage and the Super Heavy booster. That would be followed by a full static fire test, during which engineers would light up all 33 Raptor 2 engines from the booster. The launch system would then be re-stacked before the first orbital flight test.
This could all happen in a matter of weeks – March is not yet off the table for the orbital flight test – but that’s assuming all goes well and no major accidents (they’re not unheard of). It also assumes that the US Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that regulates commercial launches, will issue SpaceX with its all-important launch license fairly soon. The FAA has been essentially silent on the status of its evaluation of SpaceX’s plans, even though it has been conducting extensive reviews of the Starship launch program for some time now.
You can think of Starship as SpaceX’s raison d’être, the company’s means of preserving, as Musk puts it, “the light of consciousness” in the cosmos. Given that Starship could have the potential to launch as many as 100 tons into orbit — and given that there’s not yet a robust market to support and exploit such a capability — it seems clear that Starship was designed with Mars in mind. The company will likely spend billions of dollars working towards this goal.
It’s not just SpaceX that’s betting big on Starship’s success. NASA also counts on Starship to work, to the extent that the agency has made it a central part of its Artemis lunar program. In April 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop a version of Starship to land on the moon for the Artemis III mission, which will take place no earlier than 2024. The agency later expanded that contract by $1.15 billion to cover a second crewed Starship mission for later in the decade.
But before that can happen, Starship must enter orbit. And it may happen sooner rather than later.