SpaceX and Elon Musk are eager to show the world that the first so-called “full stack” Starship prototype is nearing completion in Texas
The company tweeted Monday that “29 Raptor engines have been installed on Super Heavy ahead to first orbital flight” and included photos.
Super Heavy is the huge booster that will launch Starship beyond Earth. So far, we’ve just seen Starship prototypes lift off on their own from the SpaceX Starbase development center at Boca Chica, Texas. Super Heavy must be included in the equation to make it to orbit.
SpaceX has 29 more engines than SpaceX for Falcon Heavy launches, so that’s two more. Three Falcon 9 rockets are used to launch the Heavy, each with nine Merlin engines. The Raptors can also deliver twice the thrust as each Merlin engine, making them a significant power upgrade for Musk’s next-generation launch platform. You need that kind of power if you’re trying to land on the moon for NASA and eventually on Mars.
SpaceX is planning to conduct its first orbital flight test for Starship using Super Heavy by launching the system from Starbase, making a quick trip to orbit and then attempting a soft splashdown landing of Starship in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii.
Super Heavy will launch and then attempt to land on Starbase in the Gulf of Mexico, using a landing platform made from an oil drilling rig modified.
Initial comments by Musk and SpaceX officials, as well as company filings, suggested that this test could take place as early as July. However, it quickly became clear that this target was unrealistic.
Even though Super Heavy and Starship look fully stacked, it is unclear when SpaceX will be able to complete all necessary testing and receive all approvals from Federal Aviation Administration in time for launch.
Federal law requires the completion of an environmental review before the first orbital flight from Starbase, a process which can take several months or even longer.
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An FAA spokesperson stated via email that SpaceX must comply with all licensing requirements before Starship/Super Heavy can be launched. “The environmental review process will allow the public to comment.”
Musk has sparred with the FAA on social media about its licensing process in the past and even launched an early Starship prototype without the proper license in place last year. SpaceX was not pleased with the move and had to undergo an internal review. However, SpaceX was given a slap on their wrist for violating the license.
Musk and SpaceX were happy to display Starship’s progress, even though they don’t have the green light for launch anywhere. It remains to be seen if it will speed up bureaucracy.