Starship test program advances towards ambitious SN8 test flight

by Chris Bergin

Starship SN8 is to become the next prototype vehicle to undergo a test flight. CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk confirmed a readiness schedule for the vehicle that will fly with three Raptors, a nose cone, and aero surfaces.

The update is an advance on SpaceX’s previous test schedule that was set to conduct multiple hops with SN5 and SN6. Following two successful 150 meter hops, SN8 will be launched to 60,000 feet (18.2 KM) as early as October.


Starship SN5 and SN6 were set to become a tag-team, flying 150-meter hops to refine the launch and landing techniques that SpaceX has pioneered with its Falcon 9 rocket.

However, with SN5’s hop proving to be a success, followed by a notable improvement with SN6’s leap to 150 meters a few weeks later, it’s likely SpaceX is now confident of advancing to the next milestone.

The fate of SN5 and SN6 is currently unknown. The two vehicles are located outside the Mid Bay, with SN5 having already undergone work in preparation for a second hop. However, most of this work was conducted ahead of SN6’s success.

Notably, both vehicles stand testament to SpaceX’s perseverance to test, fail, fix, fly – shaking off the “pops” of previous prototypes and finding the sweet spot with the manufacturing and testing.


Improvements to the construction of the vehicles will be tested again during the “burst test” of the SN7.1 Test Tank, which – like its SN7 predecessor – will be purposely pushed to destruction.

Following rollout on the same day, SN6 was returned to the production site, SN7.1 was first put through a cryotest to check the tank’s integrity. With that test in the bag, the Test Tank was lifted onto the launch mount.

With the hydraulic rams already in place to simulate loading on the thrust puck, SN7.1 will test additional refinements in the construction of the vehicles. All new Starships are made from a variant of the 304L steel alloy, ahead of the expected switch to an under-development alloy in the long-term.

The test on SN7.1 is currently expected later in the week, involving the loading of cryos before being pushed through and above the predicted pressure ratings. It is hoped the vehicle will exceed a predetermined “bar rating” before finally succumbing to the pressure loads.


Once SN7.1’s test is in the bag, Elon Musk confirmed the focus would switch to SN8’s test flight.

SN8 has been assembled inside the Mid Bay, with SN5 and SN6 taking it in turns to keep it company.

Current work involves the installation of the fins on the aft of the vehicle, while the nose cone waits inside the Windbreak facility. Final assembly is expected to take place at the launch site following the rollout of the main sections.

SN8 will fly with three Raptor engines, although it is not yet clear if SN27 and SN29 – which flew with Starship SN5 and SN6 respectively – will be two of the engines involved.

“One way or another, excitement guaranteed,” added Elon in a follow-up tweet, confirming the highly ambitious advancement of the test program, which will include numerous challenges.

Milestones ahead of the flight will also be of great interest, with the first-ever Static Fire of three Raptor engines together. Elon noted two Static Fire tests would take place ahead of the test launch.

However, the landing will be the most challenging element of the flight, which will see the vehicle shut down its Raptors and begin to return by “belly-flopping” and using its aero surfaces to guide it back toward the launch site.

SN8 will then attempt an engine relight in the final seconds to swing the aft vertical for landing.

“If this works, it’ll be the craziest piece of rocket gymnastics since landing Falcon 9,” added Lars Blackmore, Sr. Principal Mars Landing Engineer for SpaceX.

SN9, onwards:

If – and expectations should be set accordingly – SN8 suffers an issue and fails to land, SN9 will likely be at a stage of construction where it will be waiting in the wings, akin to how SN6 would have backed up SN5 had the latter suffered a failure during testing.

Sections of SN9 were spotted in the last two weeks, with stacking now taking place inside the Mid Bay next to SN8. This provided the unique first-time view of four Starships in the same viewpoint.

This incredible production cadence will allow for SpaceX to continue to push the prototypes through an ambitious test program where failures will be more useful for data gathering, as opposed to causing major scheduling issues.

Although some elements of production are hidden behind the doors of the “Big Tents,” sections for SN10 and SN11 have already been spotted by Mary (@bocachicagal) during her documentary level coverage for this site.

This is in addition to numerous deliveries of thrust pucks and downcomers – specialist builds that will be installed into future Starships.

Super Heavy and future:

With the near-term focus on SN8’s flight test, preparations for the maiden flight of a Super Heavy prototype are continuing at the launch site and production area.

The huge High Bay is now at its final height with roof sections being added while workers add cladding to the side of the facility.

This is where the first Super Heavy will be stacked, although such operations won’t necessarily have to wait until the completion of construction on the High Bay, given the first Starship stacking occurred while workers were still finishing the construction of the Mid Bay.

The High Bay and Orbital Launch Mount – via Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF

Over at the launch site, the construction of the orbital launch pad continues ahead of hosting the first prototype that is expected to hop with two Raptor engines.

The expected high demand for Raptor engines is likely to be satisfied during the test program phase, with three test stands at McGregor enjoying the constant residence of the powerful Methalox engines.

NSF member Gary Blair, who regularly passes the test facility, observed one Raptor on the vertical test stand – which used to be the Tripod Stand for Falcon 9 booster testing – and two Raptors on the horizontal test stand facility, as seen in his latest photos provided to NSF L2 McGregor.

Two Raptors on the horizontal test stand at McGregor – via Gary Blair for NSF.

Notably, one of the bays is now occupied by the RVac engine that SpaceX recently tweeted ahead of its departure from Hawthorne. Its huge nozzle is supported by struts that are a recent new addition for this engine’s test series.

With the RVac now set for a Static Fire test at McGregor, there is increased optimism surrounding the likelihood SpaceX is laying the groundwork for orbital flight missions – with a full-stack Super Heavy/Starship – as early as next year.

Lead Photo via Mary (@bocachicagal)

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