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Op-Ed: Starship’s Road to Commercial Launch – an Unclear Path

Starship lifts off on its second Integrated Flight Test in November, 2023.
Credit: David Diebold

Starship is perhaps one of the flashiest development programs in aerospace. With so much hardware in flow, the future promised by SpaceX where payloads of unprecedented mass launch regularly aboard a fully reusable launch system has had little difficulty capturing the imaginations of spaceflight enthusiasts. With testing already underway ahead of the system’s fourth Integrated Flight Test (IFT), and several more flight tests planned in 2024, one may ask how quickly the dream will become reality. The answer, however, as many things are regarding spaceflight, is complicated and prone to delays.

To say that Starship has not yet demonstrated the capabilities needed for its goals of flying people and payloads to the Moon and Mars is true, but not a very helpful baseline. While these ultimate goals of the system have been long declared, and Starship is even contracted to act as a human lander under NASA’s Artemis Program, there are layers of prerequisites that come beforehand. On a fundamental level, none of these ambitions can take place without Starship demonstrating the ability to handle complex and sensitive payloads. Put simply, Starship must first become an orbital launch service before evolving to tackle higher ambitions.

Even on this level, SpaceX has made bold claims regarding the affordability and flightrate Starship may someday be capable of. Taken at face value, they paint a picture of an unmatched service completely dominating the global launch market. Starship has not entered the launch market yet however, so we’ll ask the question: when will Starship become an orbital launch service, capable of deploying a consumer payload into orbit? It is an unambitious question, especially relative to the system’s promises; this is the easiest part of Starship’s itinerary. Yet this question alone raises concerns.

A render of Starship HLS landed on the lunar surface, this version of the system is currently planned to complete its first demo landing, land Artemis III astronauts, and land the first of Astrolab’s FLEX rovers, all in 2026.
Credit: SpaceX

To approach this question, it is necessary to define what an orbital launch service is. An orbital launch service is the process of delivering a customer’s satellite safely into its desired orbit. What may be surprising to some is the extent to which a launch service is dependent on logistics and facilities which support the operation of an orbital launch vehicle. A rocket alone does not make a service. A launch service can be broken down into payload processing and integration, launch and payload deployment, and mission assurance. 

Payload processing and integration entails the delivery, storage, and mating of a payload to its launch vehicle. This is a sensitive process entailing cleanrooms, environmentally controlled storage and facilities, and consistent checks and rechecks. Launch and payload deployment is self explanatory, the process of going from a vehicle on the launch pad to a payload in-space, and this is where Starship has the most visible progress. Mission assurance takes many forms; it can be generalized as the dialogue between a launch company and payload provider, wherein the path and steps to launch are discussed. Mission management and assurance can cover many processes such as providing transportation, data-sharing, and even clearing the launch with federal regulators. These breakdowns are not necessarily all-encompassing breakdowns; different launch providers will offer different accommodations and may break the process down somewhat differently, but these three general concepts are requirements of all launch services.

A breakdown of a payload processing, in this case for Relativity Space’s Terran 1 rocket, which flew for the first and last time in March of 2023. This graphic was pulled from Terran 1’s Payload User’s Guide, and demonstrates the steps and facilities a payload must pass through before it can be launched into space.
Credit: Relativity Space

For the majority of launch providers, the aim is to have this entire process more or less finalized ahead of a system’s inaugural launch, and demonstrate the system’s capabilities in as few launches as possible. ULA’s Vulcan-Centaur rocket, for instance, delivered Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander to space on its first launch and demonstrated the Centaur V upper stage’s ability for repeated in-space burns. The second flight of Vulcan-Centaur will demonstrate a few more capabilities required to begin National Security Space Launch missions. As another example, Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, still expected to fly later this year, will likely be carrying NASA’s EscaPADE mission to Mars. While Blue Origin’s internal goals for New Glenn’s first flight have not been shared, flying EscaPADE would certify the rocket to carry NASA science payloads right out of the gate.

SpaceX has taken a very different approach to developing Starship-Super Heavy, and the usual baseline of an inaugural launch signaling operational status no longer applies. For this reason we must look beyond simply the rocket and further analyze Starship’s progress in other aspects of becoming a matured launch service to get a firm understanding of the system’s current standing. We will break down the previously described aspects that form an orbital launch service one by one and see how Starship in its current state holds up, starting with payload processing.

Payload processing begins with the arrival of the payload at its launch site, where the provided satellite enters the custody of the launch provider. The payload is transported to a Payload Processing Facility (PPF), where the spacecraft enters an airlock for unpacking and checks before it proceeds into a large clean room. In the clean room, the spacecraft is stacked atop its payload adapter, which provides a mechanical connection between the stage below and the payload within the fairing, and an electrical connection which keeps the spacecraft healthy. The two clamshells of the rocket’s fairing are closed around it, encapsulating the payload. Within the fairing the payload is in an environmentally controlled, sterile space. The fairing may even be purged with gaseous nitrogen following encapsulation to create a dry, less reactive environment depending on the service or needs of the mission. If integration with the launch vehicle occurs horizontally, the combined payload assembly may then be rotated into a horizontal position before proceeding to integration, and may need to be transported to a separate facility for this to occur.

The Astrotech Payload Processing Facility in Titusville, Florida, the primary PPF used to ready payloads for flight on ULA’s Vulcan-Centaur and Atlas V Rockets. Seen entering the facility is GOES-T, which launched on an Atlas V in March of 2022.
Credit: Astrotech Space Operations

This is, to reiterate, a very general summary of a nuanced process undertaken by many different entities across the global launch industry. With this overview established, we can finally begin to break down Starship’s road to the launch market. Starting with the first step, what does Starship offer for a Payload Processing Facility?

Starship currently launches from only one launch complex, SpaceX’s own Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. While future launch sites are planned for Cape Canaveral, Florida, Starbase is where every Starship launch past and planned has occurred, and is the home of all current Starship and Super Heavy flight articles. With Starbase so obviously the lead facility for supporting flights of the Starship-Super Heavy system, it may be surprising to learn it does not host a PPF. 

In the past, SpaceX proposed two large processing facilities that would support orbital rocket launches from Boca Chica; these would have been built on lots designated as Lot 399760 and Lot 172928. Each facility would have been capable of processing a payload independently of the other, allowing two payloads to be prepped for flight in parallel to one another. Today, however, Lot 399760 is home to the massive tents in which the steel rings that form the Starship and Super Heavy stages are formed, and Lot 172928 is occupied by hangers and parking lots. Had the originally planned facilities been built, they would have stood 65-85 feet tall, significantly shorter than a vertically transported Starship. This is because these proposed facilities were described in a Federal Environmental Impact Survey in May of 2014, and were intended to support launches of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Starship as we know it today did not even exist.

Several Starship vehicles sit awaiting their time to fly at Starbase, Texas.
Credit: Robert Herguth

Furthermore, current production of Starship and Super Heavy occurs in temporary facilities where the vehicles are largely exposed to the elements, so a PPF at this stage of the operation would not matter. A sterile environment for payload integration does not matter if the payload is placed into an unclean payload bay. Luckily, a matured Starship production facility is in the works at Boca Chica, named “Starfactory.” Starfactory has been in construction for around two years and will eventually provide an environmentally controlled space for the production of Starship vehicles, and is expected to make heavy use of automated machinery. It is currently unclear if payload processing will be covered by this facility, and the construction process has a long way to go, but Starfactory is certainly a step in the right direction and can be considered a watch item for the system’s operational timeline.

Beyond facilities, the design of Starship itself raises its own questions. Unlike every currently flown launch system, Starship does not have a separate upper stage and payload fairing; all Starships so far have been built as one integrated unit. The tankage and engines are fused with the payload bay, which will feature an opening and closing door for payload deployment. This is, of course, done in pursuit of complete system reusability. In this way Starship is more appropriately compared to the retired Space Shuttle than a traditional rocket. While this idea is not without precedent, it comes with its own implications for the system.

While Starships such as S28, which flew as part of IFT3, have featured a payload door for SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, a general-purpose payload door has not been seen. On the Space Shuttle, the payload bay doors were optimized for operation on-orbit and could not be opened on the ground without support. It is an open question whether Starship’s prospective payload door will also require special ground equipment to be opened, or if it will be strengthened to operate in terrestrial gravity, which may eat into the system’s payload capacity. If planned expendable variants of Starship will use a traditional clamshell fairing, this will require its own tooling and processing flow, though unflown expendable prototypes Ship 26 and 27 still used a combined design.

Already, the contrast between Starship and the vehicles mentioned earlier is clear. Whereas most launch systems have their payload processing pipelines established well ahead of their first launch, Starship will continue to fly test flights with its own groundside payload process as a series of open questions. In this respect it may seem that SpaceX has put the cart before the horse, but this is the nature of the development approach SpaceX has committed to. All extant and flown Starship and Super Heavy vehicles are prototypes, none represent a final design nor offer full mission capability. The idea is to build prototypes with minimal functionality quickly, fly low-stakes missions, and use their failures to inform the design of the next prototypes. While so-called rapid iteration has allowed Starship and Super Heavy to evolve significantly from their inception (just a year ago, the first Starship stack flew with an entirely different approach to stage separation, as an example), the downside is that groundside facilities will not entirely mature until the design begins to solidify. While Starfactory is being built with a large disclosed footprint, the exact layout of the factory floor and the machines that will occupy it are not as clear. Recent updates regarding the system’s design, which will be addressed later, unfortunately confirm that many aspects of the design are still in flux. 

Moving on, launch is an area in which Starship has more to show. The two-staged vehicle has completed three integrated flight tests since April 20th, 2023. Each launch showed positive progress over its predecessor, with the third achieving the system’s first complete ascent. While each Starship launch targeted near-orbital velocity, a true stable orbit for the system is barred behind the critical ability to relight Starship’s engines in space. The reason for this is simple: while the Starship-Super Heavy system should be capable of reaching orbit, without a demonstrated ability to relight the Raptor engines on Starship, an orbital mission risks placing a large piece of hardware in an uncontrolled orbit. This capability was meant to be demonstrated on IFT3, but the test was aborted due to Starship entering an uncontrolled spin during its coast phase. When SpaceX expects a Raptor in-space relight demonstration to be reattempted has not yet been disclosed.

As far as payload deployment is concerned, as previously mentioned Ship 28 demonstrated the opening and closing of a payload door designed for Starlink satellites during its coast phase. This payload door had a long and narrow rectangular shape, providing an opening which can deploy one Starlink satellite at a time, but its unique shape is too restrictive for most large payloads to take advantage. After opening, a vapor-like condensate was seen exiting the payload door. For a visible condensate to exist in the payload bay of Starship implies more about the state of environmental control in current prototypes. The previously mentioned uncontrolled rotation of Starship and the appearance of significant venting also represent potential dangers to a payload deployment operation. While none of these factors are necessarily damning, they do represent challenges that remain to be addressed by future articles and flights.

A slide from the April 8th Starship update showing the extent to which Starship is planned to evolve. Note the increasing liftoff thrust of the Super Heavy booster despite its engine count remaining the same, implying the Raptor engine will receive further iterations until the first flight of Starship’s third generation.
Credit: SpaceX/Elon Musk via X, formerly Twitter

On April 8th, 2024, in review of Starship’s third flight test and anticipation of its next, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk gave a roughly 40 minute presentation at Starbase. The presentation provided an update on the launch system’s status and future. Perhaps the most critical detail disclosed during this talk was a comment made on the amount of payload the stack which flew IFT3 could have carried had a payload deployment system been in place: 45 to 50 tons. This is less than half the 100+ ton payload capacity promised of the Starship-Super Heavy system, and less than the advertised LEO payload capacities of SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy or Blue Origin’s New Glenn – both of which are much smaller rockets. If this figure is accurate it represents a significant underperformance in the current generation of Starship test articles. To reach its original payload goals, Starship will have to implement an evolved iteration of the Raptor engine and extend tankage on both stages, a configuration referred to as “Starship 2.” An even further future iteration of Starship, “Starship 3” will take this a step further, extending the stages a combined total 29.3 meters taller than currently flown stacks, aiming for a 200 ton payload capacity while fully reusable. When these new iterations will see flight is uncertain.

There are also some structural changes noted between current and future Starship designs which bring their own questions. For instance, it is noted that Starship 2 and 3 will include an overhaul to the hot-staging ring first introduced on IFT2 to further mitigate impacts of hot-staging (the process of lighting Starship’s engines as a means to separate it from Super Heavy) on the booster. When the original hot-staging ring was introduced, successful stage separation was the primary goal of its flight test. Does this mean that a future flight test will need to be dedicated to revalidation of hot-staging with the overhauled design? Similar questions can be raised in regards to the changes made to Super Heavy’s grid-fins, the aerodynamic surfaces on Starship, and the increased length of the stages in regards to stage recovery operations. Would a stage recovery operation with current generation Starship require a do-over when these new designs are inaugurated, or could we eventually see recovery pushed down to future generations entirely? Not to mention, these new generations will also require reworks to Starship’s launch tower, needed for stacking and catching the stages, and likely further upgrades to the tankfarm to ensure tanking for a larger system remains manageable.

 It is undeniably part of the process to take the data gathered on these flight tests back to the drawing board to compensate for issues and further improve upon what works; however, seeing the extent of the work needed to reach Starship’s base performance goals throws cold water on hopes for Starship’s near-term viability. While we are unable to say exactly how these new designs change the testing manifest for Starship, they are unlikely to decrease the count of required test flights.

Mission assurance is an area where Starship should, theoretically, see some strength if it powers through initial troubles. As things are currently planned, launch of Starship and Super Heavy’s first non-internal payload should follow after dozens of flight tests and potential Starlink missions, proving the system’s reliability before it even hits the market. Mission assurance covers pre-launch vehicle testing, and this process at least seems to be well-defined for Starship and Super Heavy. Both vehicles undergo cryogenic testing, then independent static fires, before finally being stacked for Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) ahead of launch. While sometimes this testing discovers issues – the WDR which preceded Starship’s IFT3 required a few attempts to get right – SpaceX seems to be getting better at solving them. While the beginning of fueling started late for IFT3, once it began the system proceeded all the way to launch with no hold. This is genuinely positive progress, and it shows promise for the system eventually being able to manage specific, precise launch windows once it reaches operational status. 

Mission management however, is once again a gray area, as many elements of the service remain up in the air, establishing a firm timeline with a payload provider would be difficult. Starship is currently only licensed for five flights a year from Boca Chica, a rather limiting manifest. SpaceX negotiations with the Federal Aviation Administration to raise this launch limit to nine or more flights are ongoing, but even still this is a fraction of what is offered by the company’s Falcon 9. For a system expecting high demand, it is good that the amount of launches regulated is ahead of the actual flight rate, but the current flight-rate renegotiation is unlikely to be the last. Furthermore, offerings of Starship launches from Kennedy Space Center are also ill defined and are mostly held up in regulatory approval phases. There is a long way to go on this front, but at the very least, regulation to enable Starship’s service is in the works.

With all of this addressed, we return to the question of when Starship will become an operational launch service and enter the launch market. As a reference we can look at Starship’s least complex contract: SKY Perfect JSAT’s Superbird-9, a geostationary communications satellite currently planned for 2027.

Superbird-9 is based on the OneSat satellite bus developed by Airbus Defense and Space, also used by Inmarsat’s upcoming GX7, 8, and 9 satellites. GX7 thru 9 are set to be launched on Falcon 9 and it is unlikely that Superbird-9 is so dramatically heavier that it requires Starship’s high payload capacity. Being a payload that does not require any of Starship’s exclusive capabilities, only that the service be in place to handle it, Superbird-9 may be a good judgment for when to expect Starship to enter the launch market. Superbird-9 was originally supposed to fly in 2024, but was delayed due to setbacks in both the OneSat bus and Starship system. Superbird-9 is expected to be flight-ready by the end of 2026, at which point it will fall on SpaceX to have the means in-place to handle its mission. A satellite mission flying on Starship in 2027 does not seem to be an unreasonable expectation, especially when placed against every other promise SpaceX has made in regards to Starship.

This is where Starship is tricky however, as its development is an inherently unknowable timeline. For example, we know that currently SpaceX intends to attempt the first tower-catch of the Super Heavy booster on IFT5, but this is based on a successful simulated tower-catch on IFT4, a success-based timeline in a program designed around encountering and accounting for failures. We do not know how many fully successful flight tests would be required for the first flight test of a mission-ready Starship to take place, we do not know how many reattempts those incremental flights will require, and we do not know how many FAA incident investigations will occur in between. Whether or not the facilities required to support payload flights of Starship will be in place by the time that mission-ready flight test occurs is also unclear. What we do know is that SpaceX is certainly not there yet, and a lot of work remains to be done. Perhaps the hard parts are over, and the program will deliver a service sooner than anticipated, but based on what is publicly available the opposite is equally likely. 

None of this is to say Starship will never achieve its baseline goal of offering a fully-reusable super-heavy lift launch vehicle, but when the status of the program is laid out, Starship clearly remains in its early days. Starship as flown today is an expendable lifter, with no in-space maneuvering capability, that can potentially carry 50 tons of internally housed payload into space. In the future it must evolve into a fully reusable system, with the ability to launch over 100 tons of payload safely into precise orbits, but there are many questions to answer and flights to complete before we can get to that future. With a system that has promised so much for so long, and subject to a great degree of hype, it is important to manage one’s expectations. Starship has not delivered a revolution in spaceflight yet. Understanding that Starship is in its infancy is also important in discussion of its more ambitious goals – Starship has to become fully realized before it can be derived into a human-rated moon lander.

For now, each flight test of Starship provides visual flare and a little glimpse into what the road ahead for the system might look like – it is exciting, and there is nothing wrong with excitement. Maintaining a level head is important, however, and skepticism is warranted in an industry filled with high promises and infamously associated with slipping timelines, even towards players that have proven themselves in the past.

Edited by Nik Alexander and Beverly Casillas

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