SpaceX calendar marked with big red circle for 'first Starship launch' this month
Waits for pen-pushers to sign off debut orbital mission
SpaceX has pushed back the first-ever orbital test flight of its largest and most powerful rocket, the Starship, to wait for regulatory approval from America's Federal Aviation Administration.
The 120-metre-tall (394-feet-tall) super-heavy reusable launch vehicle has remained grounded since its last launch in May 2021. That experiment – in which it took off, did some maneuvers, and landed again – marked a significant milestone towards advancing the Starship toward an orbital flight.
SpaceX hoped to launch the Starship on its next mission as early as March, then pushed back to some time in this week. CEO Elon Musk has since said SpaceX's plans are now "trending towards near the end of the third week of April." An FAA's Operation Plans Advisory report listed April 17 as a primary target launch date to fly from SpaceX's launch facility, Starbase, in Boca Chica, Texas. April 18 to 22 are listed as back up launch dates.
Starship's first orbital test flight will see its upper stage separate from its super heavy booster and complete one orbit around Earth before landing vertically near Hawaii.
In 2022, the FAA told SpaceX it had to complete an environmental review and adjust flight conditions to avoid disrupting surrounding wildlife. Sound and light levels, for example, have to be taken into consideration since the Starbase is located near a state park, beaches, a wildlife refuge, and the sea.
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The Starship can generate about 16.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, making it at least Musk's if not the world's most powerful rocket. SpaceX plans to use it to transport astronauts, heavy payloads including space telescopes, and infrastructure to build future bases on the Moon and Mars.
NASA awarded a contract worth $2.89 billion to SpaceX to cover the cost of developing and launching a the Human Landing System (HLS), a spacecraft designed to land human crews on the Moon.
That mission will see Starship launch the HLS, which will rendezvous out in space with crew in an Orion capsule launched separately by NASA and the agency's own SLS rocket. The HLS will land on Luna with its humans, then return to the orbiting Orion capsule, which will return with its crew to Earth.
NASA also pledged another $1.15 billion in a second modified contract to further adapt the HLS to deliver cargo and send more astronauts to the Moon as the space agency looks toward establishing a long-term habitat on Earth's natural satellite.
"Returning astronauts to the Moon to learn, live, and work is a bold endeavor," NASA's administrator Bill Nelson previously said in a statement. "With multiple planned landers, from SpaceX and future partners, NASA will be better positioned to accomplish the missions of tomorrow: conducting more science on the surface of the Moon than ever before and preparing for crewed missions to Mars." ®