SpaceX is poised to conduct a wet dress rehearsal of the Starship launch system from its Starbase site in southeastern Texas, a major milestone in CEO Elon Musk’s quest to turn long-haul interplanetary transportation from science fiction to reality.
It's the strongest signal yet that Starship’s first orbital flight test could well and truly be imminent. The wet dress is a critical series of prelaunch tests that includes propellant loading of both the upper stage and booster, and a run-through of countdown to around T-10 seconds, or just before engine ignition. If no major issues crop up during the testing, the next step would be “de-stacking,” or the separation of the Starship second stage and Super Heavy booster. That would be followed by a full static fire test, where engineers would light up all 33 of the booster’s Raptor 2 engines. The launch system would then be re-stacked before the first orbital flight test.
This could all take place in a matter of weeks -- March is not off the table for the orbital flight test -- but that’s assuming that everything goes well and no major mishaps take place (they’re not unheard of). It also assumes that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the body that regulates commercial launches, issues SpaceX the all-important launch license fairly soon. The FAA has been basically mum about the status of its evaluation of SpaceX’s plans, though it’s been conducting extensive assessments of the Starship launch program for some time.
One can think about Starship as SpaceX’s raison d’être, the means by which the company will, as Musk puts it, preserve “the light of consciousness” in the cosmos. Given that Starship could have the potential to put as much as 100 tons into orbit -- and given that there is not yet a robust market to support and exploit such a capability -- it seems clear that Starship was designed with Mars in mind. The company will likely end up spending billions of dollars to work toward this goal.
It’s not just SpaceX that is betting big on Starship’s success. NASA is also counting on Starship to work, to the extent that the agency made it a central piece of its Artemis moon program. In April 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop a version of Starship to land on the moon for the Artemis III mission, which will take place no earlier than 2024. The agency later expanded that contract by $1.15 billion to include a second crewed Starship mission for later in the decade.
But before any of that can happen, Starship needs to reach orbit. And it may happen sooner rather than later.