Starship ready for historic maiden flight, gains FAA launch license

by Alejandro Alcantarilla Romera

With SpaceX confirming Starship is now ready for flight, all eyes were on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to issue its launch license. That was finally granted on Friday evening.

Additionally, the company gave more details about the planned time frame for flight and the timeline for the launch. Ship 24 was also destacked from Booster 7 this week as teams are configuring the rocket’s flight termination system (FTS) before launch.

Starship Passes Review Ahead of Maiden Flight

After stacking Ship 24 on Booster 7 on April 5, SpaceX completed the final checkouts of the vehicles and proceeded into the final Flight Readiness Review (FRR) meeting ahead of Starship’s launch.

This FRR meeting was conducted on April 8, when teams cleared the rocket for flight. Some open items remained afterward that SpaceX has been working through ahead of the Launch Readiness Review (LRR) meeting expected to occur two days before launch.

Both Flight Readiness Reviews and Launch Readiness Reviews are common meetings that SpaceX usually carries out on its most important missions, such as demonstration flights and crew flights. These were also present for every Shuttle mission. Each saw several FRR meetings at different levels within NASA, with a final “Agency FRR” meeting occurring just a few weeks before the launch.

These meetings do not always come out with a positive result, and major outstanding work can prompt the call to not proceed with a launch; in these cases, a “delta-FRR” meeting is called at a later time. It is understood that this latest Flight Readiness Review was a Delta Flight Readiness Review, and teams had agreed not to proceed with the flight on an earlier FRR.

The launch site at Starbase. (Credit: Nic Ansuini for NSF)

Sometimes, it is also likely that an FRR meeting comes out with a call from teams to proceed with the launch, but with open work still left to be completed. Usually, this is because it is considered to be of lesser importance or deemed solvable before the launch.

Some of the remaining open items ahead of Starship’s LRR concern the readiness of the rocket’s software and engine interfaces, with final checks occurring over these last days to close out these issues. As of writing, it is understood that Starship’s flight software has been finalized, and SpaceX is proceeding with final checks ahead of launch.

Before the FRR, a preliminary plan called for a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) to be performed on April 11. However, as part of the decisions taken during the meeting, SpaceX decided to forego this test and proceed directly with a launch. This option would give the teams time to close out issues while still keeping the opportunity to launch on April 17. 

Ship 24 Destacked for FTS Setup

In preparation for the launch, SpaceX destacked Ship 24 from Booster 7 to set up its flight termination system ahead of the flight. This FTS usually consists of an explosive charge, a detonator, and a control box that is in charge of detecting when the rocket veers off course and needs to trigger its termination.

In order to prevent an accidental trigger of the system during the handling of the vehicles, there’s a physical safety barrier that needs to be removed before launch. The location of the FTS on both stages is near the weld line for the common dome that separates the liquid methane and liquid oxygen tanks.

This location is accessible via aerial work platforms (AWP) for the booster, and the removal of the safety system can be performed without removing it from its launch pad. For the ship, however, this location is unreachable in a stacked configuration as it sits well above the 100-meter height limit of the largest AWPs that SpaceX has at Starbase. Therefore, a destack of Ship 24 from Booster 7 was needed in order to work on this system.

Once the safety system is removed from the FTS, Ship 24 will be able to be lifted back into place atop Booster 7 for one final time ahead of launch.

SpaceX Targets Launch No Earlier Than April 17, Releases Countdown

In the last week, SpaceX has also released a tentative time frame for the launch of Starship. While on social media, the company mentions a more general target of the third week of April, the current earliest tentative launch date is April 17, with SpaceX’s own website citing this as well. 

Nonetheless, the growing list of alerts and notices that needed to be published ahead of launch all point to this date as well. As of writing, there are already marine navigational hazard notices for launch and splashdown, Mexican airspace closure notices for launch, and even road closure notices for launch at Starbase.

The latter was confirmed through an amendment this week where the notice now shows that these closures for Highway 4, the main road to Starbase, are in order to conduct spaceflight activities. 

The launch is also present on the FAA’s Current Operations Plan Advisory, which shows April 18 through April 22 as backup windows for this flight.  According to the advisory, if SpaceX were to attempt a launch on Monday, it would happen within a 3-hour, 5-minute window that should open at 7 AM CDT (12:00 UTC).

On Friday, the FAA approved the monster rocket’s test flight.

SpaceX’s update also included the release of the launch timeline and plan for the mission. For this first flight of Starship, the booster will not attempt a landing back on “chopsticks” at the launch site. It will perform a boostback burn and land over the ocean several miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. It is understood that no recovery attempt will be performed for Booster 7.

Ship 24, on the other hand, will not attempt a soft touchdown and will instead impact the ocean at terminal velocity if it were to survive up until that point.

With Starship ready and a potential license set to be granted soon, the stage will be set for the launch of the world’s most powerful rocket ever created in just a few days.

Photos from Nic (@NicAnsuini) and Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer for NSF).

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