Starship into final preps for launch targeting second half of April

by Chris Bergin

Ship 24 and Booster 7 – now returned to a full-stack stance – are waiting to attempt their historic test flight. While a launch date remains fluid, hopes remain high that the vehicle could rise out of Starbase in the second half of April.

Numerous prelaunch objectives have already been achieved before the approval of a launch license from the FAA, with final processing flow items lined up ahead of the launch attempt.

Starship at Starbase

It’s been a relatively long road to launch for Booster 7, compared to its siblings that enjoyed advancing success with their hops into the South Texas sky.

That extended timeline is mostly related to the huge leap Booster 7 will make with Ship 24, both figuratively and literally.

This test flight is far in excess of the standalone prototype Ship hops to just over 10 miles in altitude that also included Return To Launch Site landing attempts.

With the Super Heavy booster now included, the expanded testing program has seen numerous improvements during ground testing, resulting in earlier boosters falling by the wayside – or in Booster 4’s case, parked at “Rocket Garden” – before Booster 7 held on to the position of being tasked with the maiden mission.

On a few occasions, Booster 7 looked like it wouldn’t make it to the launch campaign, having suffered a crumpled downcomer (transfer tube) during testing that has since been replaced, followed by a Spin Prime test that was more “eventful” than planned.

Even the Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR) that was ultimately classed as a success resulted in a large vent that likely contained a high concentration of methane vapors, which isn’t a desirable situation.

Regardless, Booster 7 is now back on the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) for what is hoped to be the final time before it launches with Ship 24, which also marked the end of modifications to the mount.

With shielding now surrounding the ring of the OLM, scaffolding was removed ahead of Booster 7’s return, prior to Ship 24 rolling out from its temporary parking spot at the “Rocket Garden” to join up with its partner at the launch site.

On Wednesday morning, Ship 24 was lifted by the Mechazilla chopsticks.

Ship 24 lift

Ship 24 lifted atop Booster 7. (Credit: Nic Ansuini for NSF)

This operation took a few attempts to complete the mate, with an abort called during the first lift due to a loose cable that would have interfered with the mate, prior to the second attempt requiring a demate to ensure the alignment was correct.

The operation was finally completed before the Ship QD (Quick Disconnect) was mated to Ship 24. This was also followed by some mate/demate tests with the QD, likely at the same pace expected during the T0 retract requirements for the plate of umbilicals.

The lead-up to launch day is largely unknown, given this is a maiden campaign for Starship, along with the lack of information from SpaceX.

It is, however, known that the FTS (Flight Termination System) will need to be armed ahead of launch day, which is understood to involve another demate of Ship 24 from Booster 7 to access the pins that will be pulled ahead of the flight. This demate should only be for a matter of hours prior to returning to the stacked configuration.

On Thursday, SpaceX did confirm a forward plan. There will be another WDR in the mix, an opportunity set to be taken next week as the launch date target settles on a window the week after. This would come before the FTS arming.

Currently, the well-publicized April 10 NET (No Earlier Than) target had been ruled out by the cancellation of local road and beach closures, with placeholders for the following two days now likely to be related to the upcoming WDR.

The launch attempt would then follow a week later, around NET April 17, based on SpaceX’s updated info.

Ironically, Starship may also gain a WDR “for free” during the first launch attempt, given it would be reasonable to expect a few scrubbed launch attempts for this test flight.

To date, Starship’s biggest test has been the Static Fire of 31 engines at 50 percent of rated thrust. For launch, Starship requires all 33 Raptor 2s to fire at 90 percent of rated thrust.

While visiting launch fans will be eager to see the monster rocket rising into the sky, scrubs late in the count will provide SpaceX with valuable data that will – as with all of Booster 7/Ship 24’s objectives – buy down risk for upcoming vehicles.

The same will apply during the launch, with “priority one” involving the vehicle rising away from the pad without causing major damage to the launch site infrastructure. It could be argued that anything past that point will be a win, as the most powerful rocket in history adds the opening seconds to its maiden trip uphill.

A full mission success would result in the Booster splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico, while Ship 24 re-enters and splashes down off the coast of Hawaii.

Providing the launch site copes well with the maiden flight, the prospect of another launch within a few months is possible, with Booster 9 and Ship 25 deep into preparations for the follow-on flight.

Booster 9 resides inside the Mega Bay with its engines undergoing installation, while Ship 25 has been enjoying a test series at SpaceX’s recently acquired Masseys site.

That’s not to mention the multitude of vehicles in other stages of processing at the Production Site, some of which will be shipped to the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as LC-39A’s future role with Starship’s East Coast ambitions.

However, the main focus remains on the stacked duo out at the Starbase launch site, with the biggest question relating to when the first launch attempt may occur. Further insight should become known in the coming days, with a launch in the second half of April a real possibility.

Photos from Nic (@NicAnsuini) for NSF.

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