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Starship Eyes Mid-March for Flight 3

Starship flies for the second time during the IFT-2 mission on November 18, 2023.
Credit: David Diebold

SpaceX has begun the final prep work for a third flight of their Starship heavy lift reusable launch vehicle, with March 14 as the currently projected liftoff date, pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. The mission aims to demonstrate a number of key objectives for the program, including relighting Raptor engines in space and early payload deployment functionality.

SpaceX’s second flight test on November 18, 2023 saw the vehicle complete a much more nominal ascent profile when compared to the first flight of the vehicle, which lost a number of engines during first stage ascent. The vehicle successfully lifted off under the power of all 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy Booster and made it through stage separation. The booster was planned to land in the Gulf of Mexico, but instead exploded during its boostback burn. The Starship second stage continued to accelerate for over 8 minutes, reaching an altitude of 149 km (93 mi). While progressing significantly farther than the first flight, the vehicle did not achieve all of the milestones set out for the program, including demonstrating successful boostback and landing for the first stage, and entry interface and splashdown for the second stage. Following this flight, the FAA opened an investigation into the incident – recommending 17 distinct elements for SpaceX to address when performing subsequent flights.

IFT-2’s Super Heavy booster explodes after beginning its boostback burn and hotstaging.
Credit: David Diebold

The third flight test aims to build on what was learned from previous flights while attempting a number of new objectives, including the successful ascent burn of both stages, opening and closing Starship’s payload door, a propellant transfer demonstration during the upper stage’s coast phase, the first ever re-light of a Raptor engine while in space. All of this will nominally end with a controlled reentry of Starship, testing the upper stage’s thermal protection system and aerodynamic performance. It will also fly a new trajectory, with Starship targeted to splashdown in the Indian Ocean. This updated flight profile is different from the initially targeted near-orbital flights of IFT-1 and 2, but places the vehicle on a suborbital trajectory with entry expected about 45 minutes after launch – should the flight proceed nominally. These tests, while ambitious, are still dependent on the completion of nominal first and second stage flight.

SpaceX’s Starship is expected to play an important role in landing humans on the moon as part of the Artemis program, with a variant of the vehicle known as the Starship Human Landing System. This will see the Starship HLS system operate in tandem with several other Starship elements, including the tanker and depot variants, in order to send HLS to Artemis’ unique Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit. Once there, it will wait for astronauts – to be delivered by the Orion Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle built by Lockheed Martin. Once Orion delivers selected crew members, the lander will depart for the lunar surface, where the crew will perform their mission. After this, the lander will return to NRHO, where the crew will transfer to Orion before returning home. All of this will require Starship to complete a number of successful demonstrations, including a full demonstration of the launch vehicle, ship to ship propellant transfer, long duration loiter campaign and landing on the lunar surface. These events must be carried out flawlessly before humans can board the vehicle in cislunar space.

SpaceX’s HLS Starship depicted on the lunar surface during an Artemis sortie.
Credit: NASA/SpaceX

Several oversight bodies have expressed concern, however, over the pacing of the program as it relates to Artemis III, the first crewed landing using SpaceX’s Starship. In a November 30th report, the Government Accountability Office highlighted several areas of concern within the HLS program as SpaceX moved towards the then-targeted date of 2025, the year the lander for Artemis III was projected to launch. The GAO highlighted that 8 out of 13 critical events, prior to IFT-2, had not been completed successfully. The number of events the program had completed, as of the time of writing, remains uncertain. The GAO also highlighted that the technological readiness required for complex orbital refueling was insufficient, stating: “NASA documentation states that SpaceX has made limited progress maturing the technologies needed to support this aspect of its plan.” SpaceX’s Jessica Jensen noted during a January 9th Artemis Update teleconference that the final number of refueling flights will not be understood until cryogenic propellant transfer is demonstrated on orbit with the ship to ship propellant demonstration. Jensen also cited an initial target of early 2024 for Starship’s third Integrated Flight Test, with the uncrewed lunar landing demonstration currently slated for 2025. This would require several key milestones to be met within the next year to achieve system readiness. 

In addition to the upcoming flight and test objectives slated for IFT-3, SpaceX is exploring the expansion of its launch facilities to include the East Coast. In order to help bolster Starship cadence in the face of the taxing launch campaigns required for HLS operations, SpaceX is considering taking over the soon-to-be-decommissioned Delta IV Heavy launch site, SLC-37, at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station to increase cadence. This acquisition, if approved, would complement SpaceX’s current launch site in Boca Chica and support the deployment of the Starship system across multiple sites, as is the case with the company’s Falcon 9 program. This would potentially assist in maintaining a cadence of a launch every six days to ensure that sufficient propellant remains in the depot for HLS operations. However, this would require a near complete teardown of current facilities and establishment of new operational norms before the program can take advantage of this site. 

While SpaceX is currently scheduled to be the first human lander in the Artemis program, there exist multiple avenues for NASA and their international partners to deliver humans to the moon – should the test campaign of Starship not go to plan. NASA signed a $3 billion contract last year with Blue Origin, the aerospace company owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos, to build another lunar lander as part of the Sustainable Lunar Development program, a follow on to the initial Human Landing System Contract. In an interview with 60 Minutes, NASA Associate Administrator Jim Free stressed that the current order of lander flights was not set in stone, stating: “If we have a problem with one-we’ll have another one to rely on. If we have a dependency on a particular aspect in SpaceX or Blue Origin and it doesn’t work out, then we have another lander that can take our crews.”

SpaceX’s Starship system sits, once more, at a crucial crossroads for readiness. The Artemis program continues to march on, despite its cost and setbacks, and leadership has made it clear that levers may need to be pulled in order to ensure that the program as a whole remains on track. Should IFT-3 succeed, the company will be one step further towards achieving their goal of utilizing Starship as a heavy lift launch system, and preparing for what is to come in the Artemis program. SpaceX has the chance, this spring, to demonstrate that they are ready and willing to take the steps required to contribute to humanity’s lunar return – if they achieve their goals.

Edited by Beverly Casillas

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