SpaceX , the aerospace company of Elon Musk , the undisputed leader in the aerospace industry today, has spent years developing what has come to be known as Starship , the most powerful rocket with the greatest payload capacity ever built. Rocket that, on the other hand, has not yet left the atmosphere or reached low Earth orbit . But what is holding up the company’s rapid advance? Were Elon Musk’s promises too optimistic or were there external factors?
SpaceX was founded 20 years ago , in 2002, with the goal of reducing the costs of carrying cargo into space to facilitate the colonization of Mars . Since then a lot has happened and the company is currently the largest aerospace company in the world, with several records behind it. Back in 2005 , before SpaceX launched its first rocket, Elon Musk talked about his idea to build a rocket capable of carrying more than 100 tons of cargo into low Earth orbit . In the 17 years that have passed that idea has evolved and as of 2016 the current concept of the Starship began to take on a more tangible form, which would also serve to carry large amounts of cargo to Earth’s orbit, as an interplanetary vehicle . At that time Elon Musk predicted that they would send the first Starship to the red planet by the year 2022 and that they would take humans to Mars by 2024.
No one seriously thought this was possible, but the fact that the target was years away instead of decades served to embolden the public and investors alike. Come 2022, the Starship has not even completed its first orbital flight , although it is expected to do so before the end of the year. The Starship actually consists of two phases that work together. On the one hand we have the Super Heavy propellant , which would be in charge of removing the entire set from the Earth’s atmosphere , carrying almost all the fuel necessary to do so. On the other hand, there would be the second phase , also called Starship , which would be the vehicle in charge of making the interplanetary trip , it would serve as a landing module (or moon landing or landing) and as a capsule where the team of astronauts would spend the necessary time to complete the trip. to the destination satellite or planet.
Since the end of 2020, Space began to test the capabilities of the Starship spacecraft (the second phase of the complete system) with a series of flights that reached heights of between 10 and 12.5 kilometers . These tests resulted in 4 flights, those of the SN8 to SN11 prototypes , each time ending in explosions. The SN8 and SN9 prototypes exploded during landing, SN10 managed to land successfully although it exploded several minutes later due to fuel leaks while SN11 failed to land, exploding in mid-air . Finally, the SN15 prototype, the fifth to fly up to several kilometers in height, successfully passed the test in early May 2021.
Currently the Super Heavy booster has not performed any flight tests and in fact its first real test will occur during the first orbital flight of the entire Starship system. Since taking the SN15 prototype to a height of 10 kilometers and landing it on the same launch pad from which it started in May 2021 , the company has been improving and perfecting its Starship and Super Heavy design . Given the rapid progress of other phases of this ship’s production, it might seem that 15 months is too long to complete a ship that already seemed to be ready months before.
And while this is true, the blame for this delay does not lie solely with the company, but with the authorities. Authorities who, on the other hand, are only enforcing the law and guaranteeing that SpaceX operations do not pose an environmental problem. The delay has come mainly from the FAA or Federal Aviation Administration , which regulates everything related to aviation in the United States. This administration carried out an exhaustive Environmental Impact Assessment at SpaceX facilities, where they tried to determine if orbital operations with the Starship spacecraft would have an excessive impact on the environment. After several months of delays in their deliberations, they concluded, in June 2022 , that SpaceX could go ahead while they solved 75 minor problems indicated in the evaluation report. At the time of publishing this article, the FAA has not yet given the green light to SpaceX to proceed with the launch of the Starship, as it was given at the time for the Falcon 9 series rockets, which have already accumulated 175 launches since 2010 . , 173 of which have been successful .
On the other hand, the FCC or Federal Communications Commission has given SpaceX the green light to carry out all the radio communications necessary for the launch and landing of the Starship . This authorization came into force just a few days ago, on September 1, so it is expected that the FAA will soon approve SpaceX operations .
Therefore, everything indicates that in the coming months we could finally witness the first orbital flight of the Starship system, the largest rocket ever built and the one in which the most hopes are placed right now.
Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program at the SpaceX Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas, Federal Aviation Administration and SpaceX, 2022
Foust, Jeff, 2005, Big plans for SpaceX, The Space Review
Norris, Guy, 2010, SpaceX Unveils Heavy-Lift Vehicle Plan For Future Exploration, Aviation Week & Space Technology