SpaceX Starship struts its stack to show it has the right stuff

Combined with its Super Heavy booster, Starship stood briefly as the tallest rocket yet


The Jeff Bezos-bearing Blue Origin New Shepard rocket elicited attention for its shape when it launched last month.

On Friday, rival billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX Starship made a show of its size.

SpaceX stacked its Starship SN20 upper-stage atop the company's Super Heavy booster at its facility in Boca Chica, Texas, to test the fit of the two components that together made the largest rocket ever built.

At 120 meters (394 feet), the Starship launch system surpassed NASA's Saturn V, which stood 111 meters (363 feet) and last flew in 1973.

The company's stacking test, which lasted about an hour, is a prelude to plans to launch Starship on its first orbital flight, envisioned as a 90 minute trip from Starbase (Boca Chica) into space and back to a powered, targeted soft ocean landing ​​off the northwest coast of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

The Super Heavy booster, scheduled to separate about three minutes into the journey, should see its shorter eight-minute flight end in a splashdown about 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico.

Eventually, SpaceX intends to recover both vehicles through controlled touchdowns on land or at sea.

The test flight, submitted to the FCC for approval, has yet to be scheduled. There's an additional FAA environmental review that must be completed and there are further technical milestones.

Currently, SpaceX's Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon systems provide service for NASA and US Defense missions, and commercial operations. Its Starship system is intended to provide lifts into Earth orbit and to the Moon and Mars – for up to 100 people at once or 100 tons of cargo.

Last week, on July 26, Blue Origin published an open letter to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson calling for the US space agency to undertake a more competitive bidding process before bestowing contracts.

Three days earlier, NASA awarded SpaceX a $178m launch services contract for its October 2024 mission to study Jupiter's moon Europa. But that's insignificant compared to the $2.9bn contract that NASA awarded to SpaceX in April – Elon Musk's company got tapped to build the the Human Landing System (HLS) for NASA's Artemis program, which aspires to bring astronauts back to the Moon in 2024.

Shortly thereafter, Blue Origin and defense biz Dynetics filed objections to the HLS contract with the US Government Accountability Office. That led to the suspension and review of NASA's decision. But a week ago, the GAO denied the challenge and let NASA's HLS contract remain with SpaceX.

Shape and size matter in rocketry but funding matters more. ®

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