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SpaceX’s interplanetary rocket fires up engines in unprecedented test

<i>Reginald Mathalone/Nurpho/Associated Press</i><br/>SpaceX workers on February 8 made final adjustments to Starship's orbital launch mount
Associated Press
Reginald Mathalone/Nurpho/Associated Press
SpaceX workers on February 8 made final adjustments to Starship's orbital launch mount

By Jackie Wattles and Kristin Fisher, CNN

SpaceX just attempted to ignite all 33 engines in a test fire of its gargantuan Super Heavy rocket booster. The trial marks the company’s first “static fire” test for what is expected to be the most powerful launch vehicle ever built.

The Super Heavy booster started its engines for less than 10 seconds while still strapped to the launchpad. The blast sent up a massive plume of smoke and dust as birds scattered around the launch site.

Only 31 engines were lit, however, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed Thursday in a tweet.

“Team turned off 1 engine just before start & 1 stopped itself, so 31 engines fired overall,” he wrote. “But still enough engines to reach orbit!”

The engine test marked the next major step forward in the development of the Starship system — comprised of the Super Heavy booster and a spacecraft — that is designed to ferry people and large amounts of cargo into deep space, including missions to the moon and Mars.

SpaceX conducted the test fire without the Starship spacecraft mounted on top of the booster.

Development of Starship has been the sole focus of SpaceX’s activities at a facility called Starbase, outside the city of Brownsville, Texas, where Thursday’s test occurred.

Gwynne Shotwell, the company’s president and chief operating officer, had called the test “a big day for SpaceX” during a Wednesday conference in Washington, DC.

Shotwell also noted that the static fire is “the final ground test we can do before we light (the engines) up and go for that first flight test.” That test, which could send the Starship spacecraft to orbit for the first time, could “happen within next month or so,” she said.

The company — and the public — has been waiting for the orbital flight test for well over a year, as Musk at one point suggested on his Twitter feed that the test would occur as early as July 2021. Musk is well known for suggesting timelines for his projects that don’t pan out, though blowing past deadlines is a notorious issue for the aerospace industry at large.

It should be noted that SpaceX is still awaiting a license from the Federal Aviation Administration to move forward with an orbital flight test.

When reached for comment on Thursday, the agency shared the same statement it has been sharing for months: “The FAA will make a license determination only after the agency is satisfied SpaceX meets all licensing, safety and other regulatory requirements.”

In 2022, the FAA also gave SpaceX a list of 75 “mitigating actions” it needed to undertake for environmental approval. The Starship test program — and the company’s plans to launch out of its South Texas facilities, which are surrounded by wildlife reserves — has elicited fierce pushback from conservationists, as well as locals that have routinely lost access to a nearby public beach.

“There will always be work to do there,” Shotwell said Wednesday, referring to the FAA licensing process. “I think we’ll be ready to fly right at the time frame that we get the license.”

Shotwell acknowledged the tendency to share unmet deadlines for launches in her remarks when discussing SpaceX’s goal of getting the first Starship mission to Mars.

“We’re so bad at guessing time frame. … For sure, this decade we will be landing people on the moon. For sure. If not a few years from now. And then Mars? Hopefully this decade? Maybe early next decade? 2030?” Shotwell surmised. “Let’s try that. 2030.”

SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft will also serve a major role in NASA’s Artemis moon program. The space agency selected SpaceX in 2021 to provide a Starship vehicle to serve as the lunar lander for the first crewed mission to the moon since the Apollo program.

The road to orbit

Starship development at SpaceX facilities in South Texas began years ago with brief “hop tests” of early spacecraft prototypes. Those tests started with brief flights that lifted just a few feet off the ground before evolving to high-altitude flights, most of which resulted in dramatic explosions as the company attempted to land them upright.

One suborbital flight test in May 2021, however, ended in success.

Since then, SpaceX has also been working to get its Super Heavy booster prepared for flight. That’s a massive, 230-foot-tall (69-meter-tall) cylinder packed with 33 of the company’s Raptor engines — boasting more thrust at liftoff than any rocket ever made. The rocket booster is expected to be stacked with the Starship on top in order to vault the vehicle toward orbit.

Leading up to Thursday, SpaceX had conducted a series of static fires, making use of increasingly large number of engines. The previous static fire of 14 engines, in November 2022, left the company’s ground pad with some damage.

“We’ll continue to test and learn,” Shotwell said. “I don’t expect the pad to have the same issues … because we’ve done some work on the pad.”

It was not immediately clear how the ground systems fared in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s test.

Shotwell previously said she hopes the company will conduct more than 100 orbital test flights of Starship before putting humans on board, as the company will need to do in order to help NASA carry out its moon landing with the Artemis III mission, slated for 2025.

“I think that would be a great goal,” Shotwell said Wednesday, when asked whether that target was still feasible. “I don’t think we will do 100 flights of Starship next year, but maybe (in) 2025 we will do 100 flights.”

The Starship system is far different than anything SpaceX has flown before. The company has flown about 200 missions with its Falcon rockets, including trips that have sent military satellites and crews of astronauts to orbit, among other things. But Starship is far more powerful and designed for the specific purpose of venturing deeper into the solar system, such as to the moon and Mars.

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