Minimize Starship of SpaceX

Starship of SpaceX

Payload mechanical interfaces     Development Status     References

SpaceX’s Starship system represents a fully reusable transportation system designed to service Earth orbit needs as well as missions to the Moon and Mars. This two-stage vehicle—composed of the Super Heavyrocket (booster) and Starship (spacecraft) as shown in Figure 1 — is powered by sub-cooled methane and oxygen. Starship is designed to evolve rapidly to meet near term and future customer needs while maintaining the highest level of reliability. 1)

Starship has the capability to transport satellites, payloads, crew, and cargo to a variety of orbits and Earth, Lunar, or Martian landing sites. Potential Starship customers can use this guide as a resource for preliminary payload accommodations information. This is the initial release of the Starship Users Guide and it will be updated frequently in response to customer feedback.

SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket (collectively referred to as Starship) represent a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tons to Earth orbit. 2)

Starship has a height of 120 m, a diameter of 9 m and a payload capacity to LEO of 100 tons.

The Starship payload fairing is 9 m in diameter and 18 m high, resulting in the largest usable payload volume of any current or in development launcher. This payload volume can be configured for both crew and cargo. - Payload volume: 1,100 m3.

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Figure 1: Illustration of the Starship spacecraft (image credit: SpaceX)

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Figure 2: Starship crew (left) and uncrewed (right) configurations (image credit: SpaceX)




Payload mechanical interfaces payload fairing

The standard Starship payload fairing is 9 m in outer diameter resulting in the largest usable payload volume of any current or in development launcher.

The Starship payload fairing is a clamshell structure in which the payload is integrated. Once integrated, the clamshell fairing remains closed through launch up until the payload is ready to deploy. An example sequence of payload deployment is shown in Figure 3. To deploy the payload, the clamshell fairing door is opened, and the payload adapter and payload are tilted at an angle in preparation for separation. The payload is then separated using the mission-unique payload adapter. If there are multiple payloads on a single mission, a rotating mechanism can be provided to allow each satellite to separate with maximum clearance. Once separation is confirmed and the payload(s) have cleared the fairing, the payload fairing door is closed in preparation for Starship’s return to Earth.

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Figure 3: Starship payload deployment sequence (image credit: SpaceX)

Payload volume

Starship’s 8 m diameter payload dynamic envelope is shown in Figure 4. This large deployable envelope allows for the design of novel payloads, rideshare opportunities and entire constellations of satellites on a single launch. An extended payload volume is also available for payloads requiring up to 22 m of height.

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Figure 4: Starship payload volume (dimensions in m), image credit: SpaceX

Payload manifesting

Satellite customers may be manifested on single or multi-manifest missions. Customers can bring a single spacecraft, coordinate their own rideshares for a single Starship launch, or work with SpaceX to take advantage of a multi-manifest launch. Customer missions do not need to wait for co-passengers in order to fly.

The unique and large geometry of the Starship payload bay also opens new opportunities for payload integration. For payloads requiring additional structural support, Starship has the ability to mount supports along the sidewalls or nose to interface with trunnion-style interfaces on the payloads, similar to those employed on NASA’s Space Shuttle orbiters. When large payloads are co-manifested on Starship, they are generally mounted side-by-side on the payload adapter. This reduces technical and schedule dependencies between rideshare participants compared to stacked configurations.

Example single-mission manifests:

• 1-3x geosynchronous telecom satellite(s)

• Full constellation of satellites on a single mission

• 1-2x geosynchronous telecom satellites plus rideshare system of small satellites

• In-space demonstration spacecraft that remains integrated with Starship and returns to Earth

• Cargo and crew configurations.

Payload adapters

The Starship payload attach fitting is designed to accommodate standard payload interface systems in single- or multi-manifest configurations. SpaceX will either provide and integrate a payload adapter and clampband separation system or will integrate an adapter and separation system provided by the customer. As a baseline, Starship is compatible with heritage Falcon 937-mm, 1194-mm, 1666-mm and 2624-mm clampband interface requirements, including the ability to host multiple payloads side by side given the large diameter available. For customers with alternative interface requirements, SpaceX has a wide breadth of experience designing and manufacturing non-standard adapters and separation systems.

Payload electrical interfaces

Starship will replicate common payload power and data interface standards on the flight vehicle in lieu of customer-provided electrical ground support equipment (EGSE) for final pre-launch operations. This will allow the payload to be powered, monitored, and commanded after integration into the fairing without facility located payload EGSE. This covers final pre-launch events in the processing facility and on the launch pad, and some of these electrical interfaces may continue to be available in-flight.

Environments

Utilizing strong heritage and lessons learned from the development of the Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch systems, SpaceX is designing Starship and Super Heavy to provide as benign of a payload environment as possible. SpaceX will ensure that Starship environments meet or improve upon those of the Falcon Heavy launch system. To aid in the design of space vehicles capable of flying on Starship, SpaceX is providing the following preliminary payload environments.

Loads

SpaceX is designing Starship to ensure that acceleration environments are well within industry standard levels. During flight, the payload will experience a range of axial and lateral accelerations. Both the Super Heavy and Starship engines can be throttled to help maintain launch vehicle and payload acceleration limits.

The maximum expected design load factors for a single payload mission launching on Starship are shown in Figure 5. Actual payload dynamic loads, accelerations, and deflections are a function of the dynamic coupling between Starship and the payload. These loads can be accurately determined via a coupled loads analysis.

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Figure 5: Payload maximum design load factors (image credit: SpaceX)

Payload integration

SpaceX is initially planning for two launch sites for the Starship vehicle:

• Kennedy Space Center LC-39A | 28.6082° N latitude, 80.6041° W longitude

• Boca Chica launch pad | 25.9971° N latitude, 97.1554° W longitude.

For payloads requiring return to Earth, landing sites are coordinated with SpaceX and could include Kennedy Space Center, FL or Boca Chica, TX.

Payloads are integrated into the Starship fairing vertically in ISO Class 8 (Class 100,000) cleanrooms. Then the integrated payload stack is transferred to the launch pad and lifted onto the Starship vehicle, while maintaining the same vertical orientation throughout the entire process. Conditioned air is delivered into the fairing during encapsulated ground processing while in the processing facility and on the launch pad.

Payload separation

SpaceX provides in-flight commanding and monitoring of the payload separation system(s). Starship can perform 3-axis attitude controlled or spin-stabilized spacecraft separation. Note that certain spacecraft separation maneuvers may reduce available payload volume. Collision avoidance maneuvers will be performed as required.

Performance

The Starship and Super Heavy system offers substantial mass-to-orbit capabilities. At the baseline reusable design, Starship can deliver over 100 metric tons to LEO. Utilizing parking orbit refueling, Starship is able to deliver unprecedented payload mass to a variety of Earth, cislunar, and interplanetary trajectories. A summary of available Starship capabilities is provided in Table 1. The single launch mass-to-orbit assumes no orbital refueling of Starship. The maximum mass-to-orbit assumes parking orbit propellant transfer, allowing for a substantial increase in payload mass. These performance numbers assume full Starship reuse, including Super Heavy return to launch site.

Orbit

Mass-to-Orbit Single Launch

Mass-to Orbit Prop Transfer (t)

LEO (Up to 500 km circular orbit at up to 98.9º inclination)

100+

100+

GTO (assumes 185 x 35,786 km orbit at 27º inclination with
1800 m/s ΔV to go)

21

100+

Lunar Surface

N/A

100+

Mars Surface

N/A

100+

Table 1: Expected Starship Performance

Cargo configuration

Starship was designed from the onset to be able to carry more than 100 tons of cargo to Mars and the Moon. The cargo version can also be used for rapid point-to-point Earth transport. Various payload bay configurations are available and allow for fully autonomous deployment of cargo to Earth, Lunar, or Martian surfaces with one example shown in Figure 6.

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Figure 6: Cargo Starship on Lunar Surface (image credit: SpaceX)

Crew configuration

SpaceX was founded with the goal of making life multi-planetary. The Starship program is realizing this goal with the crew configuration of Starship. Drawing on experience from the development of Dragon for the Commercial Crew Program, the Starship crew configuration can transport up to 100 people from Earth into LEO and on to the Moon and Mars. The crew configuration of Starship includes private cabins, large common areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters and a viewing gallery.

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Figure 7: Starship Crew Configuration (image credit: SpaceX)




Development status

• May 14, 2021: SpaceX has disclosed details for the first orbital test flight of its next-generation Starship launch system, but the company is still far short of the regulatory approvals needed for the mission. 3)

- SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission May 13 for special temporary authority for communications required to support a Starship test launch from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. The license would cover communications for what the company called an “experimental orbital demo and recovery test of the Starship test vehicle” launching from Boca Chica.

- In an attachment to the application, SpaceX provided the first details about what it calls “Starship Orbital – First Flight.” The mission would involve a launch of the overall Starship vehicle, including the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage, from Boca Chica.

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Figure 8: According to a SpaceX application to the FCC, the first orbital test flight of the Starship/Super Heavy system will involve a booster landing in the Gulf of Mexico and a Starship landing in the ocean near Hawaii, to mitigate the risk of a vehicle breakup during reentry (image credit: SpaceX)

- “SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally,” the company said in the application. “This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design or [concept of operations] after the first flight and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.”

- As outlined in the application, the Super Heavy booster will shut down 169 seconds after liftoff, separating from the Starship upper stage two seconds later. Super Heavy will fly back not to Boca Chica, but instead to a location 32 kilometers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, touching down 495 seconds after liftoff. The application didn’t state if the booster would land on a platform, such as an oil rig SpaceX is converting for such uses, or splash down into the ocean.

- Starship, which ignites its engines five seconds after stage separation, will shut down its engines 521 seconds after liftoff, having achieved orbit. The vehicle, though, will complete less than one full orbit before entering and landing in the Pacific Ocean 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai approximately 90 minutes after liftoff.

- The application notes that SpaceX will perform a “powered, targeted landing” but not on any kind of ship. Instead, it will make “a soft ocean landing.” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a tweet that the company is planning an ocean landing to avoid hazards should the vehicle not survive reentry. “We need to make sure ship won’t break up on reentry, hence deorbit over Pacific,” he wrote.

- The application did not specify when the company expects to perform this launch, beyond a six-month “requested period of operation” that starts June 20.

- SpaceX can’t carry out the launch, though, until it receives a license from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration’s) Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That license will depend on the status of an ongoing environmental assessment of Starship/Super Heavy launch operations from Boca Chica, which fall outside the scope of the original environmental impact statement prepared when SpaceX planned to use the site for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles.

- That assessment is ongoing, and the FAA has not given schedule for completing it. The FAA states on its website that the public will be given an opportunity comment on the draft assessment, which will recommend whether the FAA needs to then prepare a more detailed environmental impact statement. The FAA could otherwise determine there would be no significant impact to the environment from Starship/Super Heavy launches, or that those impacts can be mitigated with appropriate measures, the agency explained in a set of frequently asked questions about the ongoing environmental review.

- “SpaceX must meet all licensing requirements before Starship/Super Heavy can launch,” an FAA spokesman noted May 14.

May 5, 2021: A SpaceX Starship prototype successfully carried out a brief suborbital test flight May 5 after four previous vehicles were destroyed during or shortly after landing. 4) 5)

- The Starship SN15 vehicle lifted off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site at 6:24 p.m. EDT. The vehicle flew to an altitude of approximately 10 kilometers before descending and landing back at the test site six minutes after liftoff.

- There was a fire at the base of the vehicle after landing, similar to what happened with the flight of the Starship SN10 vehicle March 3. That vehicle exploded less than 10 minutes later. On this flight, remotely-operated fire suppression systems appeared to extinguish the fire within several minutes.

- SN10 was one of four Starship prototypes destroyed in test flights between December and March. The most recent vehicle, SN11, exploded when a Raptor engine suffered a “hard start” as it reigniting for its landing burn on a March 30 flight.

- The SN15 Starship prototype “has vehicle improvements across structures, avionics and software, and the engines that will allow more speed and efficiency throughout production and flight,” SpaceX said on its website. Those changes included a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt and a new Raptor engine design and configuration.

- ”This flight includes multiple upgrades and improvements to address the findings from the rapid unplanned disassembly that we experienced on the last flight,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said on the SpaceX webcast of the test flight. “The vehicle also incorporates changes to get us closer to the orbital configuration.”

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Figure 9: SpaceX’s Starship SN15 prototype lifts off May 5 on a successful suborbital test flight at Boca Chica, Texas (image credit: SpaceX webcast)

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Figure 10: Starship SN15 after landing. A fire is visible at the base of the vehicle but was extinguished several minutes later (image credit: SpaceX webcast)

- SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk seemed satisfied with the flight. “Starship landing nominal!” he tweeted shortly after landing.

- The company has not disclosed if it plans to fly SN15 again. A new prototype, SN16, is nearing completion at the SpaceX facilities in Boca Chica.

- Starship serves as the upper stage of SpaceX’s next-generation launch system. On orbital flights Starship will be launched atop a large booster called Super Heavy, which is still under development.

- SpaceX is also developing a version of Starship that will serve as a lunar lander. NASA selected Starship in its Human Landing System (HLS) competition April 16, awarding it a $2.9 billion contract to fund development of the lander version of Starship and one flight to the lunar surface with astronauts on board. That contract is on hold, however, after the two losing bidders, Blue Origin and Dynetics, filed protests with the Government Accountability Office.

- “It’s definitely going to be really helpful,” Musk said at an April 23 NASA press conference after the Crew-2 commercial crew launch, when asked how that HLS contract would help Starship development. “It’s mostly been funded internally thus far, and it’s pretty expensive.”

- “As you can tell if you’ve been watching the videos, we’ve blown up a few of them,” he added. “Excitement guaranteed, one way or another.”

- “It’s a tough vehicle to build because we’re trying to crack this nut of a fully and rapidly reusable rocket,” he said, emphasizing the importance of such reusability to lowering launch costs and increasing flight rates. “If you have rapid reusability, then that is the gateway to the heavens. That’s what we’re trying to get done.”

- “The Starship design can work. It’s just a hard thing to solve, and the support of NASA is very much appreciated in this regard,” he said later in the briefing. “I think it’s going to work.”

• April 6, 2021: SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said an engine on the company’s latest Starship prototype suffered a “hard start” that caused the vehicle to explode when attempting to land on a test flight last week. 6)

- The Starship SN11 vehicle lifted off in dense fog March 30 from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site, flying to 10 kilometers altitude before attempting a landing back at the test site. However, video from the vehicle was lost just as the vehicle’s Raptor engines were reigniting for the landing. Only later, after the fog cleared and people could return to the test site, was it clear the vehicle had exploded, scattering debris around the area.

- In an April 5 tweet, Musk blamed the loss of the vehicle with problems with one of the three Raptor engines. A leak of methane (CH4) fuel in that engine triggered a fire and “fried part of [the] avionics” on the engine, he said, “causing hard start attempting landing burn in CH4 turbopump.”

- A “hard start” is aerospace terminology for a circumstance when there is excess propellant in an engine’s combustion chamber when it is ignited. This creates a pressure spike that can damage an engine or, in a worst-case scenario, trigger an explosion.

- Onboard video from Starship SN11 shown on SpaceX’s webcast of the launch does show a fire on the exterior of one of the Raptor engines starting about 25 seconds after liftoff. The fire burns for about five seconds before the webcast cuts to other camera angles, so it’s unclear long the fire lasted and if that was the incident that damaged the avionics. The fire did not appear to affect the vehicle’s performance on ascent.

- All four of the Starship suborbital test flights since December have ended with the loss of the vehicle. The Starship SN8 vehicle exploded upon landing in December, which Musk later blamed to a loss of pressure in a “header” propellant tank at the top of the vehicle that deprived the engines of enough propellant to land intact.

- The SN9 vehicle, which launched Feb. 2, exploded upon landing as well. One of the vehicle’s Raptor engines failed to ignite for the landing, causing it to hit the ground too fast and at an angle.

- The SN10 vehicle appeared to land intact on its March 3 flight, only to explode less than 10 minutes later. Musk later said that bubbles of helium, added to the header fuel tank to maintain pressure for landing after the SN8 crash, were ingested by the engines, preventing them from generating enough thrust to land safely. The vehicle landed at a high speed, causing damage that led to the explosion minutes later.

- Musk tweeted that the methane leak is being fixed “six ways to Sunday” but did not elaborate. His tweets have been the primary source of public information on the status of Starship development, with SpaceX itself releasing little information. For example, after the SN11 flight the company stated on its website, “Shortly after the landing burn started, SN11 experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly.” It offered no further details.

- The next Starship vehicle in development, called SN15, incorporates what Musk said last week are “hundreds of design improvements” to its structure, avionics and engines. “Hopefully, one of those improvements covers this problem,” he said shortly after the SN11 explosion. “If not, then retrofit will add a few more days.”

• March 30, 2021: SpaceX launched its fourth Starship prototype in less than four months March 30, only to have the vehicle apparently crash once again. 7)

- The Starship SN11 vehicle lifted off at approximately 9 a.m. Eastern from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site, despite heavy fog that made it all but impossible to see the vehicle ascend. The SpaceX webcast of the flight relied on video from onboard cameras.

- The flight appeared to go as planned initially, with the vehicle going up to 10 kilometers altitude, then descending back to the landing pad. The onboard video, though, stopped 5 minutes and 49 seconds after liftoff, just as the vehicle reignited its Raptor engines for landing.

- “It looks like we’ve had another exciting test,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said on the webcast, several minutes after the loss of video. “We’re going to have to find out from the team what happened.”

- He did not confirm that the vehicle had been lost, but independent video of the landing showed debris falling around the test site at the time of landing. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk later acknowledged the vehicle was destroyed, tweeting that “At least the crater is in the right place!”

- “Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn’t needed,” he added. “Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.”

- The flight was the fourth of a Starship prototype to an altitude of 10 kilometers or more since early December. All four of those vehicles were lost either on landing or shortly thereafter. On the previous test, of Starship SN10 March 3, the vehicle appeared to land intact, only to explode less than 10 minutes later.

- This flight was delayed a day after an FAA safety inspector was not able to get to Boca Chica before the window closed for the test. A revision to the FAA’s license for that series of Starship tests, dated March 12, requires an FAA inspector to be at Boca Chica for the tests.

- The FAA added that provision after SpaceX violated conditions of its launch license on the SN8 test flight in December, which took place even after the FAA denied SpaceX’s request for a waiver for maximum allowed risk to the uninvolved public. While that flight caused no damage outside of SpaceX’s test facility, the FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation into the incident and delayed approval of the next test flight, SN9, in early February.

- On March 25, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and its aviation subcommittee, respectively, wrote to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson about that incident. “Given the high-risk nature of the industry, we are disappointed that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action,” they wrote.

- The FAA, in a statement late March 30, said it would oversee SpaceX’s mishap investigation, as it has done in previous Starship mishaps. “The FAA will approve the final mishap investigation report and any corrective actions SpaceX must take before return to flight is authorized,” the agency said.

- The FAA added it was looking into reports that debris from Starship SN11 was found several kilometers from the test site, well outside the exclusion zone for the launch. People attempting to watch the launch from the southern tip of South Padre Island reported finding lightweight debris, but it was not clear that, assuming it was from SN11, it came from the crash itself or fell off in earlier phases of flight. The FAA noted that there were no reports of damage or injuries from that debris.

• March 3, 2021: SpaceX launched a prototype of its Starship next-generation vehicle March 3, landing it safely only to have the vehicle explode minutes later. 8)

- The Starship SN10 vehicle lifted off from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site at about 6:15 p.m. EST. A launch attempt three hours earlier was aborted at engine ignition because of a “slightly conservative high thrust limit,” company founder and chief executive Elon Musk tweeted.

- The SN10 flight followed a similar profile to two previous one, by SN8 on Dec. 9 and SN9 on Feb. 2. The vehicle flew to a planned peak altitude of 10 kilometers, shutting down its three Raptor engines in sequence during the ascent. The vehicle then performed a “belly flop” maneuver to a horizontal orientation to descend back to its landing pad.

- On the two previous Starship test flights, SpaceX had problems reigniting two Raptor engines needed for a powered landing after flipping back to a vertical orientation. SpaceX changed the procedure on this landing attempt, igniting all three and then shutting down two as needed for the landing.

- That appeared to work. The vehicle touched down on the pad softly, rather than crash and explode, about six minutes and 20 seconds after liftoff. Video showed that the vehicle was leaning slightly but otherwise appeared intact — initially.

- “Third time’s the charm, as the saying goes,” John Insprucker, the SpaceX engineer who hosted the company’s webcast of the flight, said. “A beautiful soft landing of Starship on the landing pad in Boca Chica.”

- SpaceX terminated the webcast at that point, but independent webcasts showed that, about eight minutes after landing, there was an explosion at the base of the vehicle. The explosion flung the vehicle into the air, crashing back down on the pad several seconds later. Neither SpaceX nor Musk immediately commented on the explosion, but webcasts showed hoses spraying water at the base of the vehicle in the minutes before the explosion.

- Insprucker noted the next prototype, SN11, is “ready to roll out to the pad in the very near future.”

- The flight came one day after Starship’s first announced customer revealed new plans for his mission. In September 2018, Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa said he had purchased a flight of the vehicle, then known as BFR, for a circumlunar trip in 2023. On that mission, called “dearMoon,” Maezawa would fly with up to eight artists.

- Maezawa updated his plans for dearMoon March 2, announcing a contest open to the general public to fly eight people on that mission, still scheduled for 2023. “I began to think that maybe every single person who is doing something creative could be called an artist,” he said in a video. “If you see yourself as an artist, then you’re an artist.”

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Figure 11: SpaceX's Starship SN10 prototype prepares to land after a flight to 10 km. The vehicle landed intact, only to explode minutes later (image credit: SpaceX)

- The project’s website has opened up preregistrations for the contest, which will be followed by an “assignment” and interviews, with selections of the crew expected by the end of June. The project offered no additional details about that selection process, or any restrictions based on age, physical condition or nationality. The project did not respond to questions from SpaceNews on those and related topics about the project.

- Maezawa said a total of 10 to 12 people will fly on the mission, but did not disclose who those beyond the eight selected in the competition would be.

- Musk, who also appears in the video, said he believed Starship would be ready to carry people around the moon by 2023. “I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship before 2023, and that it will be safe enough for human transport by 2023,” he said.

- “I’m a little scared,” Maezawa admitted in the video, “but I’m more curious and I trust Elon and the SpaceX team, their technological prowess and teamwork.”

• February 2, 2021: A second prototype of SpaceX’s Starship reusable launch vehicle performed a suborbital flight Feb. 2, only to crash while landing. 9)

- The Starship SN9 vehicle lifted off at about 3:25 p.m. Eastern from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. SpaceX planned to fly the vehicle to an altitude of 10 kilometers before landing on a pad at the test site.

- The liftoff and ascent of the vehicle went as expected, according to commentary on the SpaceX webcast by company engineer John Insprucker. The vehicle reached the 10-kilometer mark four minutes after liftoff and, after hovering briefly, flipped to a horizontal orientation to glide back to the landing pad.

- As it neared the pad, Starship flipped back to the vertical and ignited its engines. However, only one of the three Raptor engines ignited, and the vehicle appeared to swing past the vertical. The vehicle crashed at close to a 45-degree angle and exploded 6 minutes and 26 seconds after liftoff.

- The flight was almost identical to Starship SN8’s flight Dec. 9. That vehicle made what appeared to be a largely successful flight until landing, when an engine failed to ignite and the vehicle came in too quickly, exploding as it hit the pad. However, on that flight the vehicle was in the proper vertical orientation for landing, rather than at an angle as with SN9’s attempted landing.

- “We had again another great flight up to the 10-kilometer apogee,” Insprucker said on the webcast after the crash. “We demonstrated the ability to transition the engines to the landing propellant tanks. The subsonic reentry looked very good and stable like we saw again last December.”

- “And again, we’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit,” he added, emphasizing that the launch was a test flight.

- SpaceX received approval for the flight from the Federal Aviation Administration less than 24 hours earlier. The agency suspended launches from Boca Chica after SpaceX’s SN8 flight. SpaceX had sought a waiver to a maximum public risk requirement in its launch license, but proceeded with the flight even though the FAA rejected the waiver request.

- In a statement issued several hours after the test, the FAA said it would oversee the investigation into the SN9 crash. “Although this was an uncrewed test flight, the investigation will identify the root cause of today’s mishap and possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops.”

- Depending on the outcome of the analysis in the SN9 crash, SpaceX could move ahead quickly in the overall Starship test program. The next prototype, SN10, arrived at the test site Jan. 29. Insprucker said that SN10 is being prepared for a “similar flight later this month.”

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Figure 12: SpaceX's Starship SN9 vehicle explodes after crashing at the end of a test flight Feb. 2 at the company's Boca Chica, Texas, test site (image credit: SpaceX webcast)

• January 29, 2021: A test flight of SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle is on hold as the company awaits approval from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), a delay that has publicly aggravated the company’s chief executive. 10)

- SpaceX had planned to perform a suborbital flight of its Starship SN9 vehicle at its Boca Chica, Texas, test site Jan. 28. The vehicle would have made a flight similar to that by the SN8 vehicle Dec. 9, this time going to an altitude of 10 kilometers before landing back at Boca Chica.

- However, temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) closing airspace around the test site were unexpectedly lifted around the middle of the day, even as SpaceX was preparing the vehicle for the flight. A source familiar with the discussions between the FAA and SpaceX said that the agency requested additional information about the vehicle and flight plan before giving final approval.

- SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk berated the FAA for the delay. “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” he tweeted. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”

- The company proceeded with launch preparations Jan. 28, leaving some to wonder if the company might perform a launch without a TFR in place or other FAA approvals. That turned out to be a wet dress rehearsal, with the vehicle fueled but the countdown halted before engine ignition.

- A second launch attempt Jan. 29 did not get nearly as far. An FAA air traffic advisory early in the day stated that the launch had been canceled, although the TFR remained in place. By midmorning, though, SpaceX said it was now targeting no earlier than Feb. 1 for the SN9 launch.

- Neither SpaceX nor FAA have disclosed additional details about the issue preventing FAA approval for the launch. “We will continue working with SpaceX to resolve outstanding safety issues before we approve the next test flight,” FAA spokesperson Steven Kuhn told SpaceNews Jan. 29.

- “The FAA will continue to work with SpaceX to evaluate additional information provided by the company as part of its application to modify its launch license,” the FAA said in a statement late Jan. 29. “While we recognize the importance of moving quickly to foster growth and innovation in commercial space, the FAA will not compromise its responsibility to protect public safety. We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements.”

- The conflict between the FAA and SpaceX stands in contrast to the FAA’s public stance of working constructively with industry. That has included a streamlining of launch and reentry regulations the FAA concluded last fall. Those new regulations take effect 90 days after their official publication in the Federal Register Dec. 10.

- At an appearance Jan. 26 at a space investment webinar by IPO Edge, Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said he understood the industry’s desire to move quickly. “As soon as that rocket’s ready to go and that payload’s ready to go, they want to go. So that we don’t become an impediment to the success of U.S. companies, we, as the primary regulator in this industry, have to be ready as well.”

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Figure 13: SpaceX's Starship SN8 prototype shortly after liftoff from Boca Chica, Texas, Dec. 9 2020 (image credit: SpaceX webcast)

- Monteith said he was willing to talk directly with launch company executives if there were regulatory issues. “CEOs and presidents of companies also have my direct line. They can reach out to me directly if our teams are miscommunicating or not communicating well with each other,” he said. Issues that might take staff “weeks or months” to resolve, he said, “we can sometimes fix in a single phone call.”

- “While nobody likes to be regulated, it’s important,” he said. “For one, it keeps everyone safe, and number two, it provides that stable environment for investors.”

• As early as Monday, February 1, 2021, the SpaceX team will attempt a high-altitude flight test of Starship serial number 9 (SN9) – the second high-altitude suborbital flight test of a Starship prototype from our site in Cameron County, Texas. Similar to the high-altitude flight test of Starship serial number 8 (SN8), SN9 will be powered through ascent by three Raptor engines, each shutting down in sequence prior to the vehicle reaching apogee – approximately 10 km in altitude. SN9 will perform a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent. 11)

The Starship prototype will descend under active aerodynamic control, accomplished by independent movement of two forward and two aft flaps on the vehicle. All four flaps are actuated by an onboard flight computer to control Starship’s attitude during flight and enable precise landing at the intended location. SN9’s Raptor engines will then reignite as the vehicle attempts a landing flip maneuver immediately before touching down on the landing pad adjacent to the launch mount.

A controlled aerodynamic descent with body flaps and vertical landing capability, combined with in-space refilling, are critical to landing Starship at destinations across the solar system where prepared surfaces or runways do not exist, and returning to Earth. This capability will enable a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.

There will be a live feed of the flight test available here that will start a few minutes prior to liftoff. Given the dynamic schedule of development testing, stay tuned to our social media channels for updates as we move toward SpaceX’s second high-altitude flight test of Starship!

• September 1, 2020: Starship is designed to be a long-duration cargo and, eventually, passenger-carrying spacecraft. 12) The development of the Starship began around 2012.

- SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said the company is making “good progress” on its next-generation Starship launch vehicle despite delays in the schedule of test flights of the vehicle.

- In an interview broadcast during the Humans to Mars Summit by the advocacy group Explore Mars Aug. 31, Musk emphasized the progress the company has made not on test flights of the vehicle but instead development of production facilities for Starship at Boca Chica, Texas.

- “We’re making good progress. The thing that we’re really making progress on with Starship is the production system,” he said, referring to the growing campus at Boca Chica. “A year ago there was almost nothing there and now we’ve got quite a lot of production capability.”

- Those facilities have cranked out a series of prototypes of Starship, which is intended to serve as the upper stage of the overall launch system. Musk said that construction will start this week on “booster prototype one,” a reference to the Super Heavy first stage of the system.

- That production capability, he argued, is essential to the long-term development of the overall launch system. “Making a prototype of something is, I think, relatively easy,” he said. “But building the production system so that you can build ultimately hundreds or thousands of Starships, that’s the hard part.”

- That focus on production belies the lack of progress on actual testing of the vehicle. At a September 2019 event at Boca Chica, Musk, with a Starship prototype standing behind him, said that the vehicle would fly to an altitude of 20 kilometers in one or two months. “I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months,” he said, a schedule he said at the time was accurate to “within a few months.”

- Eleven months later, a Starship prototype has flown only once: an Aug. 4 “hop” test of a prototype known as SN5 that flew to an estimated altitude of 150 meters before landing on a nearby pad. Another prototype, SN6, was being prepared for a similar hop test Aug. 30 that was scrubbed for undisclosed reasons. Four other prototypes were destroyed in ground tests prior to the SN5 flight.

- Musk, asked when Starship would make its first orbital flight, said, “Probably next year.” He didn’t specify if that would be the Starship vehicle alone or the full stack with the Super Heavy booster. “I hope we do a lot of flights. The first ones might not work. This is uncharted territory. Nobody’s ever made a fully reusable orbital rocket.”

- He later said he expected the launch system, ultimately intended to transport people to Mars, will do “hundreds of missions with satellites before we put people on board.”

- Musk quoted a cost estimate for developing Starship of $5 billion, a figure he has stated in the past. He played down the NASA Human Landing System award the company received in April, valued at $135 million, to study using the Starship system as a means for landing NASA astronauts on the moon for the Artemis program. “Definitely the NASA support is appreciated,” he said. “It’s helpful, but it’s not a gamechanger.”

- The overall design of the system is still evolving. While SpaceX previously described Super Heavy as having 31 Raptor engines, Musk said the final number may be less. “We might have fewer than 31 engines on the booster, because we’re trying to simplify the configuration,” he said. “It might be 28 engines. It’s still a lot of engines.”


More background of this giant commercial SpaceX program can be found in the ”Starship development history” of Wikipedia. 13)



1) ”Starship Users Guide,” SpaceX, Revision 1, March 2020, URL: https://www.spacex.com/media/starship_users_guide_v1.pdf

2) ”Starship SN9 High-Altitude Flight Test,” SpaceX, 2021, URL: https://www.spacex.com/vehicles/starship/

3) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX outlines first orbital Starship test flight,” SpaceNews, 14 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/spacex-outlines-first-orbital-starship-test-flight/

4) Jeff Foust, ”Starship survives test flight,” SpaceNews, 5 May 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/starship-survives-test-flight/

5) ”Flight Test Starship SN15,” SpaceX, 5 May 2021, URL: https://www.spacex.com/vehicles/starship/

6) Jeff Foust, ”Engine explosion blamed for latest Starship crash,” SpaceNews, 6 April 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/engine-explosion-blamed-for-latest-starship-crash/

7) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX crashes another Starship prototype,” SpaceNews, 30 March 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/spacex-crashes-another-starship-prototype/

8) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX launches and lands Starship prototype, which later explodes,” SpaceNews, 3 March 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/spacex-launches-and-lands-starship-prototype-which-later-explodes/

9) Jeff Foust, ”SpaceX Starship crashes after suborbital flight,” SpaceNews, 2 February 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/spacex-starship-crashes-after-suborbital-flight/

10) Jeff Foust, ”FAA reviews delay SpaceX Starship test,” Space News, 29 January 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/faa-reviews-delay-spacex-starship-test/

11) ”Starship SN9 High-altitude flight test, - Upcoming Test,” SpaceX, January 2021, SpaceX, https://www.spacex.com/vehicles/starship/

12) Jeff Foust, ”Musk emphasizes progress in Starship production over testing,” SpaceNews, 1 September 2020, URL: https://spacenews.com/musk-emphasizes-progress-in-starship-production-over-testing/

13) ”Starship development history,” Wikipedia, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starship_development_history


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

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