It’s been nine months since we last saw a new Starship prototype exit the SpaceX factory in Boca Chica, Texas. The unfinished rocket, designated S24, is slated for qualification testing, but the Elon Musk-led company still needs regulatory approval to launch the fully stacked system.
The rollout of prototype S24 is a potential sign that SpaceX is on track to perform the first orbital flight test of the fully stacked Starship rocket later this year, as Musk, the company’s founder and CEO, has promised. That SpaceX will attempt 12 Starship launches in 2022—another Musk promise—seems overly optimistic at the moment, but nuttier things have happened.
Starship is designed to transport cargo and passengers to Earth orbit, the Moon, and Mars. Musk has described it as a “generalized transport mechanism for the greater solar system,” but more conservatively, the company must demonstrate the vehicle as being capable of landing astronauts on the Moonas per a NASA contract. The space agency is wanting to plop astronauts on the lunar surface by 2025, which means SpaceX needs to get cracking; a fully stacked Starship rocket has yet to leave the ground.
The sudden appearance of Starship prototype S24 is thus a welcome sign from the company. The unfinished unit left the SpaceX factory at the Boca Chica facility yesterday and was transported to a testing area. A video posted to NASASpaceflight’s YouTube channel showed the new prototype being rolled out, providing several clear views of the behemoth. The prototype will need to pass some basic qualification tests, namely pressure and cryogenic proof tests. Should all go well, S24 will then be moved to Suborbital Pad A for further evaluation, as Teslarati explains:
Rather than leaping straight into static fires, SpaceX will minimize the risk of catastrophic failure by first using hydraulic rams to simulate the thrust of six Raptor V2 engines while Starship’s steel tanks and plumbing are chilled to cryogenic temperatures. Only after Ship 24 completes stress testing will SpaceX install new Raptor engines and [perform] several static fires.
Absent from the rocket are hundreds of tiles and an aerocoverbut S24 does exhibit some differences from previous versions, such as a more resilient thrust section, a new nose, an upgraded landing propellant tank, and a payload bay and door, according to Teslarati.
The previous prototype, S20, made its first appearance in August 2021 and was retired in May 2022. S20 never took flight, but it did undergo Raptor static fire tests and was temporarily stacked atop Super Heavy booster BN4, making it the largest rocket ever assembled.
Depending on how things go, S24 could stay on the pad or be moved back to the factory for further work. The prototype could very well be the upper stage that gets placed atop Booster 7, which is also undergoing development at the Boca Chica facility. The Super Heavy Booster is about to undergo Raptor installation, according to NASASpaceFlight.
Should SpaceX want to perform its orbital test, however, the Federal Aviation Administration needs to complete its environmental review, the delivery of which is expected on May 31. The FAA has delayed this much-anticipated review on four previous occasions, but the regulatory agency is expected to release it for real next week. The Boca Chica facility, or Starbase as it’s known to SpaceX employees, is located on environmentally sensitive land.
The outcome of the review could have a significant bearing on the project; the worst case scenario for SpaceX would be a full-blown environmental assessment of the Boca Chica site, which could take years. Alternatively, the FAA could come back with a list of easily resolvable recommendations for SpaceX to follow. Or something in between. Either way, we’ll be watching these developments closely.