WASHINGTON — SpaceX fired nearly all of the engines in the booster of its Starship launch vehicle in a ground test Feb. 9, one of the last technical milestones before the vehicle’s first orbital launch attempt.
The Super Heavy booster ignited its engines at about 4:14 p.m. Eastern at the company’s Starbase test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The engines fired for nearly 15 seconds, with both the booster and launch infrastructure appearing intact after the test. SpaceX said that the test ran for the full intended duration.
The test was designed to fire all 33 Raptors in the booster. However, SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted immediately after the test that controllers turned off one engine just before the test and another stopped itself during the test. “But still enough engines to reach orbit!” he declared.
Company officials had previously said a full 33-engine static-fire test was the final major test for the vehicle before the first orbital launch attempt. “It’s really the final ground test that we can do before we light ’em up and go,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 8, when she announced the scheduled test.
Shotwell said at the conference that if the test went well, the company would be ready to make an orbital launch attempt in about a month. That schedule will depend not just on the technical readiness of the vehicle but also receiving an FAA launch license. “I think we’ll be ready to fly right at the timeframe that we get the license,” Shotwell predicted in comments to reporters after her conference presentation.
Starship is essential to both SpaceX’s plans to deploy its next-generation Starship system as well as for NASA, which will use a lunar lander version of Starship for landing astronauts on the moon on the Artemis 3 mission through the Human Landing System (HLS) program.
The two are linked, said Nick Cummings, director of civil space advanced development at SpaceX, during another panel at the FAA conference Feb. 9, noting that initial Starship missions will launch Starlink satellites. “I think we should all think about those as Artemis launches,” he said of Starship launches carrying Starlink satellites. “Critically, what we’re doing is developing the reliability and reusability that we need to support the HLS mission and, more broadly, the sustainable expansion of humanity to the moon and then Mars.”
Shotwell, in her conference presentation, suggested Starship might fly 100 or more times before it carries people, although she later told reporters that was more of a goal than a requirement. “I would love to do hundreds before. I think that would be a great goal and it’s quite possible that we could do that,” she said.
She acknowledged there is no guarantee the first orbital launch will be a success, but that the company was ready to make repeated attempts. “We will go for a test flight and we will learn from the test flight and we will do more test flights,” she told reporters. “The real goal is to not blow up the launch pad. That is success.”