More than half a year after its first flight, SpaceX believes it’s on the cusp of getting to launch its Starship rocket for a second time.
On Friday afternoon, the company updated its website to announce that the second integrated flight test (IFT-2) of it’s towering rocket “could launch as soon as mid-November, pending regulatory approval.” Sources suggest the launch could be as soon as Nov. 13, but that’s far from set in stone.
Those regulatory hurdles surrounding the fully reusable launch vehicle are now mainly centered around the conclusion of an environmental review, which is in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
Earlier this week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it had concluded the Starship-Super Heavy safety review. In a statement to Spaceflight Now, the agency said that “The environmental review is the last major element to complete before the FAA makes a license determination.”
SpaceX will debut a number of upgrades to both the rocket itself as well as the launch infrastructure, including their new hot-stage separation system and an electronic Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system.
The FWS has been evaluating one of the key upgrades since IFT-1: the water-cooled steel flame deflector aka the water deluge system.
Reached for comment early Friday morning, an FWS spokesperson said they didn’t have any updates to provide regarding their progress.
Road to the Moon
As was the case with the IFT-1 mission earlier this year, NASA has been eagerly watching the progress of Starship.
SpaceX only has so much time to move through evolutions of Starship before it’s needed to operate as the first vehicle that will be a part of the Human Landing System Program within the overall Artemis Program.
During 2024, SpaceX is expected to demonstrate its ability to transfer propellant from one Starship vehicle on orbit to another, a key milestone needed within the architecture of safely getting the spacecraft to the Moon, down to the surface and back into lunar orbit.
“That will be a really key indicator as to their readiness level,” said Lisa Watson-Morgan, the HLS Program Manager. “And once they get to that point, and once that is achieved, it’s much smaller from there on out.”
That propellant transfer mission will also call upon at least one additional orbital launch mount, which adds to the importance of being able to demonstrate either the success of the changes made or showcase what still needs to be adjusted.
Watson-Morgan told Spaceflight Now last month that this iterative approach can be tricky to step through, but makes things more simplified by the end of the testing campaign.
“And so what that means is by the time they’re at the end of their test campaign, they’re pretty much ready to fly. It’s more of a just, here’s the rest of the documentation. Let’s go in and certify,” Watson-Morgan said. “So, while yes, these are early developmental flights, and they’re not what the Human Landing System Starship will be, in that it doesn’t have our life support, it doesn’t have our comm system, it doesn’t have those aspects, but it is still very important and required. So for us, schedule is key.”
We’ll see when launch number two ends up on the schedule.