Surprising probably no one, the timeframe SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has given for a successful orbital Starship mission is anywhere from next month to next year.
Starbase, SpaceX’s manufacturing and testing facility near Brownsville, Texas, has seen a large increase in activity in recent months. After a lull from the high pace mission that was successfully landing Starship once, SpaceX is focused on getting Starship orbital, or near orbital at least.
The plan for Starship’s orbital test flight is to launch the rocket near orbital velocity but not actually make an entire orbit. The last plan seen in an FCC filing showed the upper stage of Starship would splash down off the coast of Hawaii. The Super Heavy booster would splash down in the Gulf of Mexico.
Of course, if Starship survives reentry, heat shield tiles have been a problem for SpaceX. Only SpaceX knows if its heat shields can genuinely handle the stress of reentry, and with past Starship flights, it’s not always a requirement for everything to be perfect. It would be interesting to see if SpaceX returns to the “hardware rich” testing philosophy where if it loses a rocket, they could put a new one on the pad in a matter of days.
Being hardware rich was what SpaceX used to get through the testing meat grinder of landing Starship. This was beneficial as it helped SpaceX refine its production of the new rocket and allowed the company to complete its goal in just a couple of months.
The timeframe to get Starship orbital isn’t as straightforward. SpaceX did get a mitigated FONSI (finding of no significant impact) on its environmental assessment to launch from Starbase. Still, we don’t know how much must be fixed before the first orbital launch attempt. The public comment phase of the assessment created a heated debate between locals who supported Musk and those who didn’t.
Musk took to Twitter to say “a *successful* orbital flight is probably between 1 and 12 months from now.” This means they are expecting some to fail, although ideally not at liftoff as that could damage the orbital launch mount, and SpaceX only has one in Texas. Failure of a Starship rocket wouldn’t be a bad thing. SpaceX learns more from a failed launch than any amount of ground testing so it would make Starship more likely to succeed the next time.
For now, SpaceX is working on some issues with Booster 7, which had an unexpected combustion event a few weeks ago. Engineers are expecting the engines to see if any took damage from the event, which will take time. I would also expect more stacking and engine testing to take place in the next few months.