SpaceX plans third orbital attempt after launching twice in 2023

dfwnewsa | December 29, 2023 | 0 | East Texas News , South Texas News

SpaceX plans third orbital attempt after launching twice in 2023

SpaceX managed to get two Starship orbital launch attempts under its belt in 2023, the first on April 20 and the second nearly seven months later on Nov. 18, both launching from the company’s Starbase rocket production and testing complex at Boca Chica.

Both flights ended in the six-engine Starship and 33-engine Super Heavy booster prototypes being destroyed by onboard autonomous flight termination systems. The first flight, involving Starship SN24 and Booster BN7, ended four minutes after launch miles above the Gulf of Mexico when the two stages failed to separate and the vehicle veered out of control.


The launch pad was shattered during liftoff, leaving pieces of reinforced concrete and steel strewn hundreds in all directions and triggering a lawsuit by environmental groups against the Federal Aviation Administration, alleging that the agency should have more thoroughly vetted SpaceX’s launch plans before the green light. SpaceX can’t fly without the FAA’s permission in the form of a launch license.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s billionaire founder and CEO, heralded the April 20 flight as a success just for making it off the launch pad without blowing up. The Starship team used telemetry data sent by the rocket during the four minutes of flight to make a number of design changes to increase the odds of actually reaching orbit the second time around.

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SpaceX’s Starship launches from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Thursday, April 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

The launch pad was reconstructed and a water-deluge system installed to help keep the pad intact during subsequent launches. The Nov. 18 orbital attempt, using Starship SN25 and Super Heavy BN9, made it much farther before self-destructing. The Starship and booster separated a couple of minutes after launch as planned, this time employing “hot-stage separation,” which involves lighting the second stage (Starship) engines just before the first stage (Super Heavy) detaches.

The Super Heavy self-destructed at 3 minutes and 22 seconds, rather than splashing down in the Gulf as planned, though the Starship continued on and was near the end of its six-minute engine burn before reaching orbit when ground control lost contact 8 minutes and 4 seconds after liftoff, by which time the ship had reached an altitude of 92 miles and a speed of 14,990 mph.

Kate Tice, SpaceX Quality Systems Engineering senior manager, who was also a commentator during the company’s live stream of the flight, chalked it up as “an incredibly successful day” despite losing both stages in a RUD — rapid unscheduled disassembly. Starbase General Manager Kathy Lueders told The Brownsville Herald on Dec. 12 that, as of that date, Starship’s anomaly investigation team was still looking into why the flight-termination systems kicked in this time.

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Meanwhile, SpaceX has already rolled Starship SN28 and Super Heavy BN10 to the pad and on Dec. 20 conducted a successful static-fire test of all six of the SN28’s engines in preparation for a third orbital attempt.


Musk said via X (formerly known as Twitter) on Friday that the company completed a static-fire test of the Flight 3 Super Heavy Booster.

SpaceX’s mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

SpaceX waited seven months for the FAA to complete its mishap investigation and environmental review of what went wrong with the first orbital launch attempt, ordering the company to take a slew of corrective actions as part of the application process for a modified for a second attempt. SpaceX doesn’t want to have to wait that long again to get permission for a third orbital try.

Lueders said the company hopes to launch early in 2024, ideally the first quarter of the year. The Nov. 18 launch triggered another lawsuit by environmental groups against the FAA, plus the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service this time, arguing that the agencies failed to “fully analyze and mitigate environmental harm” from the April 20 incident before issuing a second launch license.

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NASA is in a hurry for SpaceX to get this right, since the Hawthorne, California-based company has a $2.9 billion contract with the space agency, awarded in 2021, to develop Starship as the Human Landing System that will return astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years as part of NASA’s Artemis moon program.

The first moon landing of astronauts, under the Artemis III mission, was initially slated for December 2025, though it’s unlikely that’s feasible given the slow pace up to now of SpaceX’s orbital flight testing with Starship.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include a late-breaking development about a static-fire test being completed for the Super Heavy Booster.

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