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Elon Musk offers new date for first Starship orbital flight

While Elon Musk’s space mission target dates tend to slip more than a loose pair of pants, he does of course call it right eventually.

Fans of absurdly powerful rockets are currently eagerly awaiting the first orbital test flight of SpaceX’s Starship — the most powerful launch vehicle ever built — comprising the Super Heavy first-stage booster and a rocket-powered spacecraft called Starship.

SpaceX's Starship spacecraft atop the Super Heavy booster.
SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft atop the Super Heavy booster at SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX

SpaceX’s next-generation Starship vehicle is destined for crewed missions to the moon and Mars, with a lunar touchdown expected to take place in the next few years.

But first, the team behind it needs to check that it works …

SpaceX chief Musk has dropped a number of predictions for Starship’s first orbital test flight, but each one has sailed rapidly by like a plastic bag caught in the wind. Now set to miss the March date that he once expressed, Musk said this week he believes Starship will finally head skyward in May. This May, that is.

Tweeting about Starship’s readiness for flight, Musk said on Tuesday that SpaceX expects to have the rocket’s 39 new Raptor 2 engines built by next month — 33 for the Super Heavy booster and six for the Starship spacecraft. Following work to integrate them into the launch vehicle, he thinks the highly-anticipated orbital flight could take place in just a couple of months from now.

However, there is one other issue that could yet through a spanner in the works. It concerns the Federal Aviation Administration, which is still conducting an environmental review to determine the suitability of SpaceX’s Boca Chica site in Texas for rocket launches of this magnitude. The result of the review is expected before the end of March. If it goes in favor of SpaceX, then Musk’s May forecast may hold. If not, the hardware will have to be transported to a launch site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, around 1,000 miles to the east, which would likely add another delay to proceedings.

The first orbital test flight, when it finally takes place, will see Super Heavy power Starship to orbit. Around three minutes after launch, Super Heavy will perform a splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, while Starship will head to orbit before coming down in the Pacific about 90 minutes after lift-off.

Future launches will see both Super Heavy and Starship returning to Earth and performing upright landings — similar to how SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket operates — so that the vehicle can be used for multiple missions.

But for now, keep your fingers crossed for May.

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