Second flight of Starship closing in on potential November launch

by Chris Bergin

The flight of Booster 9 and Ship 25 is now in the final stage of preparations, focused on regulatory approval that will allow SpaceX to set a launch date. That target is currently tracking mid-November as the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) works on the final element of the FAA’s launch license via an updated Biological Assessment under the Endangered Species Act.

SpaceX has completed most of the prelaunch processing of the next full stack vehicle to fly out of Starbase, with a successful Wet Dress Rehearsal highlighting the recent path to launch.

With the vehicle then destacked, all eyes were on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to complete its process and approve the launch license to allow SpaceX to set the launch date. However, while the FAA confirmed the completion of the safety review portion of the license evaluation this week, full approval is still pending the FWS environmental review portion.

“The FAA is continuing to work on the environmental review. As part of its environmental review, the FAA is consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on an updated Biological Assessment under the Endangered Species Act,” noted the release.

“The FAA and the USFWS must complete this consultation before the environmental review portion of the license evaluation is completed.”

Had the regulatory process been completed at this point, the potential of a launch on Nov. 6 – as documentation pointed towards – would have been on the cards. SpaceX showed during the maiden flight of Starship they can move into a launch stance within days of approval. With the final element yet to be completed, a target of mid-November becomes a more viable aspiration.

Hope such approval will come shortly was raised by increased activity by the FWS, who have been seen working around the launch site, including a large contingent on Thursday.

Around the same time, SpaceX opted to stack and then destack Ship 25 atop Booster 9 over a 24-hour period. This stacking was not expected, and SpaceX opted not to post a photo on X, as they have consistently done during previous stacking. As such, there has been no official reason for the short restack.

Providing SpaceX doesn’t take the opportunity to conduct another short restack over the coming days, the path to launch will involve numerous factors.

First, the FWS will inform the FAA they have completed its environmental review, allowing the latter to issue confirmation the launch license has been approved.

SpaceX will then issue media accreditation – not to be posted in public – for placing cameras inside the exclusion zone, an area that will also involve local authorities to set up to ensure public safety in the event of a malfunction.

SpaceX will then likely make the launch date target official, with the final processing at the pad involving the replenishment of the Tank Farm and the arming of the Flight Termination System (FTS) on Ship 25, likely after the conclusion of the Launch Readiness Review.

The FTS – which has required modification since the maiden launch – is designed to ensure the vehicle is destroyed should it deviate from the planned trajectory.  It was one of the first systems to be retested at the Masseys test site after the launch of Booster 7 and Ship 24.

Ship 25 will then be restacked atop Booster 9 a day or so ahead of launch countdown preparations.

Starship fully stacked at the Orbital Launch Site. (Credit: Jack Beyer for NSF)

Obvious caveats will then be in play for launch day, such as the potential for a scrub.

Booster 7 and Ship 24 launched at the second attempt, although it is unknown if SpaceX would continue to the launch commit point if any of the 33 Raptor 2s on the aft of Booster 9 fail to fire up and show acceptable parameters. With Booster 7, SpaceX decided to “send it” despite lifting off with three engines out.

For this key part of the launch countdown, numerous modifications are now in place. The water deluge system will be activated to protect the launch pad surface, avoiding the “rock tornado” that resulted in an extensive repair and rework of the launch site.

Elon Musk also noted not long after the maiden flight that the launch sequence will be modified from six seconds of engine ramp-up before commit, to around three seconds – again reducing the stress on the launch pad surface.

While the main objective of this flight will be to test the numerous modifications on Booster 9, minimal damage to the launch site will aid turnaround to the third flight, which is currently set to involve Booster 10 and Ship 28.
As per SpaceX’s usual incremental improvement approach to its Starship test program, Ship 28 includes many modifications compared to Ship 25. Should SpaceX achieve its objectives during first stage flight involving the modified Booster 9 and the new addition of the Hot Staging Ring, any successes with Ship 25’s leg of the flight will be classed as a bonus.

This will then allow for confidence that the third flight could achieve one of the major test flight goals of reaching orbital velocity, a flight that could take place early in 2024 and set the stage for around four or five flights out of Starbase as SpaceX pushes to move from test flights to an operational rocket.

(Lead image: Ship 25 is lifted by the Chopsticks. Credit: Sean Doherty for NSF)

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