SpaceX’s successful failure is a wake-up call for Starship’s timeline


SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket launch from Starbase on April 20, 2023.
Image Credits: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post / Getty Images

SpaceX launched a fully integrated Starship launch vehicle for the first time on Thursday morning, a long-awaited and highly anticipated milestone in the vehicle development program.

The orbital test flight surpassed many expectations. The vehicle cleared Max Q – the point at which the most aerodynamic pressure is exerted on the vehicle – and flew for nearly three minutes despite eight of its 33 rocket engines failing. The rocket reached an altitude of almost 40 kilometers, the point of stage separation, at which time the upper stage failed to separate from the booster, leading to uncontrolled tumbling and a spectacular midair explosion.

Despite its fiery fate, the test was a success: SpaceX got tons of valuable data that will inform future Starship and Super Heavy prototypes. But for all the wins, the test was a stark reminder that Starship mission timelines are in need of a reset.

Tempering expectations

The Starship’s attempt at an orbital launch showed impressive progress but also that the company still has a long way to go before achieving its super-heavy launch ambitions.

Beyond the technical issues with the rocket itself, the sheer power of the Raptor engines at takeoff produced a massive crater underneath the orbital launch mount. It’s unclear how much work will be required to repair the site, or if it can be salvaged at all. Either way, ground infrastructure issues could impose significant delays to later tests — perhaps delaying the next one by months.

SpaceX currently has three private human spaceflight missions on its Starship manifest. Those include Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s dearMoon flight around the moon, the third mission in billionaire Jared Isaacman’s Polaris Program, and a separate lunar mission later this decade, for which entrepreneur Dennis Tito and his wife Akiko purchased two seats.

Of these, only dearMoon has a launch date: later this year. This was optimistic to begin with when they announced it in 2021 but now it seems downright ludicrous.

SpaceX has also won lucrative contracts with NASA, performing a crucial role in the Artemis lunar landing program. Artemis III will see astronauts launch to space inside an Orion atop a Space Launch System vehicle, after which they will rendezvous with a Starship human landing system. From there they will travel to the lunar surface and back — but whether that can be achieved as planned in 2025 is doubtful.

Between now and then, SpaceX must fly at least one uncrewed Starship and land it on the lunar surface before NASA can deem the vehicle ready to carry astronauts. The Artemis III plan also involves SpaceX sending up multiple reusable tankers and a propellant storage depot, with Starship refueling on-orbit to ensure it can make all the orbital burns required for the mission. All of these components of the mission are affected by delays to the core Starship testing program.

Needless to say, the plan is enormously complicated. SpaceX will not just need to send Starship to orbit once, but again and again. It will have to prove out a high degree of safety before NASA allows astronauts to fly on it, demonstrate on-orbit refueling and achieve reusability. At this pace, it’s more realistic to hope for Artemis III happening any time before 2030.

Does that mean NASA made the wrong choice in selecting SpaceX for its human landing system, or that Maezawa and Isaacman bet on the wrong horse? Not at all. But it does mean that all of us should temper our expectations about what the rest of this decade might hold for human spaceflight.

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