This week saw Elon Musk give a short presentation on the Starship program to NASEM (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine) where he gave a much-needed updated timeline on the first orbital launch, now targeting no earlier than January 2022. Starbase also saw the final stacking operations of Booster 5, as well as additional work to Ship 21 and 22. Finally, a somewhat cryptic tweet by Elon hints at either a major redesign of the Raptor engine or an all-new engine moving forward.
On the 17th of November, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave a short presentation at the end of the Fall 2021 Meeting for the Board on Physics and Astronomy at NASEM. While the majority of information he shared was not new, often talking to the publicly known capabilities of the starship program, he did share an updated timeline regarding the first orbital launch of a full stack (Booster + Ship). During the talk, Elon commented, “We’ve done several suborbital flights and have been able to land the vehicle successfully. The first orbital flight we’re hoping to do will be in January.”
This came shortly after the FAA announced that the Environmental Assessment will be completed by the 31st of December, 2021. Provided the FAA continues with their proposed action of providing a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) in regards to super heavy operations, SpaceX will be able to apply for a launch license from the FAA.
Another interesting piece of news from the meeting was the intention to conduct 12 orbital flights next year. Depending on whether the current permit is by calendar year or financial year, SpaceX has a limit of 5-10 launches within the calendar year of 2022. To exceed that, they will need to make the appropriate request to the FAA and go through a similar, but shorter process than the current EA. The FAA has been very public about how this current EA has a systematic approach that allows individual components of the EA to be reviewed and changed as needed, ultimately reducing the time and resources needed.
Booster 5, Ship 21 and 22
On November 19th, the final stacking operations of Booster 5 began, with the two tank sections being mated. This marks the second orbital booster built by SpaceX and is expected to launch Ship 21 (provided no major malfunctions to either booster or ship) in the first half of 2022. Ship 21 also continued further stacking operations with its tank sections being mated in the Mid Bay, although further assembly has been put on hold due to the limited High Bay space.
Once Booster 5 is complete and able to be moved out of the High Bay, the Ship 21 tank section and nose cone are expected to be moved into the facility for final stacking. These vehicles are expected to conduct a similar test to flight 420, to successfully reach orbit, deorbit and return to Earth in one piece. Musk has mentioned the possibility of Booster 5 being the first booster to attempt a catch with Mechazilla, although this will depend on a lot of variables from flight 420 and testing of flight 521.
Finally, Ship 22’s tank section began assembly this week with the first section being lifted into the Mid Bay. Stacking operations are expected to be slower unless Ship 21’s tank section is moved out into the courtyard. Space is a luxury at Starbase right now.
Finally, this week Elon replied to a tweet mentioning either a brand new engine in the initial stages of development at SpaceX or a major redesign and name change for the Raptor Engines. In a reply to John Gardi on Twitter, Elon said: “Raptor 2 has significant improvements in every way, but a complete design overhaul is necessary for the engine that can actually make life multi-planetary. It won’t be called Raptor.”
True, although it will look clean with close out panels installed.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 17, 2021
Raptor 2 has significant improvements in every way, but a complete design overhaul is necessary for the engine that can actually make life multiplanetary. It won’t be called Raptor.
Now, this is quite a bombshell to drop as both potential outcomes change the Starship program significantly. If this is a major redesign and subsequent name change to the Raptor family of engines, this may set back the Starship program in its march towards rapid and full reusability. This is not a problem during the early stages of the overall program as launch cadence will below, but the goal of Starship is to launch several times a day in support of space stations, moon bases, and colonies on other planets.
The alternative is an interesting scenario to imagine as well and may indicate SpaceX’s intentions moving forward. In his response, Elon specifically mentions making life multi-planetary, which is a significant problem/mission to undertake. The amount of mass that needs to be moved between planets in the form of people, resources, and everything in-between is substantial. Trying to move all of that in many small ships does not appear to be advantageous, as the terrestrial shipping industry has shown us. Instead of shipyards building many small ships, they’ve instead focused on building larger ships, due to the improvement of efficiency and economics. It would not be surprising to see SpaceX follow this line of thought when undertaking its colonization efforts.
This concept is not new and has been popularized by Apollo Astronaut Buzz Aldrin as a ‘Cycler’ and the sci-fi film ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon. As per the movie, these vehicles would stay in orbit of the planets they serve, having to only build for this environment, compared to Starship that has to build for both atmospheric conditions and vacuum. The result is a more specialized vehicle that is assembled in orbit but ultimately can move more mass, more efficiently, and also operate more powerful systems due to the lack of atmospheric design limits.
Ultimately, Elon’s tweets are very cryptic and range from potentially groundbreaking news like that mentioned above to memes and other random subjects. No doubt however we’ll soon be hearing more about the plans as Starship orbital operations get underway.