WASHINGTON — SpaceX offered its strongest signals yet that it is nearing the first full-scale launch of its Starship vehicle, now expected for later this month.
The company tweeted April 6 that it was planning a launch rehearsal for the vehicle, now fully stacked on the pad at its Starbase facility at Boca Chica, Texas, next week. That will be followed by the first launch attempt about a week later.
Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and chief executive, later confusingly tweeted that the vehicle is “ready to launch next week.” However, neither the company nor the Federal Aviation Administration appears to be planning for a launch the week of April 10. In an Operations Plan Advisory document by the FAA, used to support flight planning, the agency lists a first launch date of April 17 for the Starship flight, with backup dates of April 18 through 21. All the dates have the same window from 8 to 11:05 a.m. Eastern.
There had been speculation that SpaceX would attempt to launch Starship earlier. A maritime warning notice suggested a launch between April 6 and 12, while the FAA planning document earlier this week listed a launch April 10 with backup days of April 11 and 12.
Those plans are dependent on both the technical readiness of the vehicle as well as the issuance of a launch license from the FAA. Both SpaceX and Musk noted those schedules were pending “regulatory approval,” and the FAA said the inclusion of the Starship dates on its planning documents did not imply a launch license has been issued.
The last major testing milestone for the launch was a static-fire test of the Super Heavy booster Feb. 9. While only 31 of the 33 Raptor engines in the booster fired, the company deemed the test a success. Gary Henry, senior advisor for national security space solutions at SpaceX, said at a conference Feb. 21 that the static-fire test was the “last box to check” before launch, which he estimated at the time to take place “in the next month or so.”
“We’re so close” to that launch, said Tom Ochinero, senior vice president of commercial business at SpaceX during a panel at the Satellite 2023 conference March 15. “We’re waiting on our FAA license so that we can announce our launch date.”
The company had referred to the test as the first orbital flight demonstration of Starship, although current plans do not call for the vehicle to complete one orbit. Instead, the Starship upper stage will splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. It’s unclear if Starship will actually enter orbit, then immediately perform a deorbit burn to splash down, or if instead it is a long suborbital flight.
SpaceX, in its tweet about the upcoming launch, referred to the mission as the “first integrated flight test” of Starship without explicitly calling it an orbital launch attempt.