- Elon Musk says he’s confident SpaceX will launch its Starship mega-rocket into orbit this year.
- Starship’s first orbital launch would be a major step toward NASA’s return to the moon and Musk’s Mars settlement.
- Musk has been overly optimistic about past launch dates and SpaceX still needs Federal Aviation Administration approval.
Elon Musk says that SpaceX, the rocket company he founded in 2002, will likely launch its Starship mega-rocket into orbit around Earth for the first time this year.
At SpaceX’s rocket-development facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, on Thursday, Musk stood in front of a jet-black Starship, fully stacked atop the 23-story Super Heavy booster that’s meant to heave it into orbit. Dwarfed by the towering launch system, Musk told an assembled crowd that the rocket will soon be ready to roar into Earth’s orbit for the first time.
“I feel, at this point, highly confident that we’ll get to orbit this year,” Musk said.
—Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 10, 2022
Starship is the rocket on which Musk has pinned his hopes of colonizing Mars. Unlike any prior launch system, Starship-Super Heavy is designed to be fully reusable. While NASA and its contractors discard the upper stages of their rockets, Starship is meant to land back on the ground to fly another day — just as the Super Heavy booster is built to land for reuse shortly after releasing the spaceship. Musk has said this reusability could slash the cost of reaching space by a factor of 100 or more.
“That’s the breakthrough that’s fundamentally important to change the course of human civilization to become a multi-planet species,” he said Thursday.
Ultimately, Musk has said he plans to build 1,000 Starships that would carry people and cargo to Mars to establish a self-sustaining settlement.
For now, NASA has chosen Starship to land astronauts on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. That moon mission is set for 2025.
Another billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, has pinned his own space-travel dreams on Starship, booking it for a ride around the moon as soon as next year.
Before Starship can carry anybody anywhere, SpaceX has to prove it can safely fly to space and back.
“Our focus right now is just getting to orbit and proving out return of the booster and return of the ship,” Musk said.
SpaceX expects to fail and try, try again
Musk gave his launch prediction during the first Starship-update presentation that he has shared since 2019. In that update more than two years ago, Musk presented his larger vision for the launch system and its Mars-populating mission.
SpaceX has made significant progress since then. After a series of six-mile-high test flights, which ended in Starship exploding, the rocket finally soared into the skies on May 5, plummeted back to Earth, and refired its engines, just in time to flip upright and gently lower itself to the Boca Chica landing pad.
That was just Starship, though. The rocket hasn’t yet flown with its booster.
A full orbital test flight would involve the Super Heavy booster launching from Boca Chica and pushing Starship into orbit. After circling the planet, Starship would splash down off the coast of Hawaii 90 minutes after liftoff, according to a SpaceX FCC filing from May.
Musk has previously said he doesn’t expect the first orbital launch to be successful. During a video call with members of the National Academy of Sciences in November, Musk said he wasn’t confident that Starship would fall into Earth’s orbit on its first attempt, but that he expects SpaceX will make that achievement in 2022.
Musk has a history of setting optimistic launch dates
SpaceX officials have previously announced orbital-launch target dates that the company failed to hit. In previous public statements, SpaceX executives forecast a Starship orbital launch in July 2021. It didn’t happen. They missed their November 2021 launch target, too. In his November video call, Musk said the first orbital launch would happen in January, and that SpaceX aims to carry out a dozen or more orbital test flights this year.
Musk has previously admitted that he tends to be “somewhat optimistic with respect to schedules.”
In his appearance on Thursday, though, he was much more reserved. This time, both the technological and regulatory stars could align for his prediction of a 2022 orbital test launch.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) expects to complete its environmental assessment of the Boca Chica launch site, which Musk calls “Starbase,” by the end of this month. SpaceX is required to have that assessment before it can conduct orbital Starship launches from Boca Chica.
“We don’t have a ton of insight into where things stand with the FAA. We have gotten sort of a rough indication that there may be an approval in March,” Musk said Thursday.
He added that the Starship-Super Heavy hardware should be ready to fly at around the same time. SpaceX is still working on a few upgrades, like adding more thrusters to the booster.
“I think we’re close to having the hardware ready to go. Right now I think we’re tracking to have the regulatory approval and hardware readiness around the same time,” Musk said. “Hopefully, basically a couple months for both.”
Depending on the FAA’s findings, it’s possible SpaceX may also need to produce a new environmental-impact statement, which could take up to three years. SpaceX’s plans to dig natural-gas wells and build gas-fired power plants in Boca Chica could prolong the environmental review.
If that happens, Musk said that SpaceX would finish building a new launch tower at its launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and launch Starship from there. That would mean a delay of six to eight months, he said.