SpaceX plans to have its first Starship test flight to orbit launch from Texas and splash down off the coast of an island in Hawaii, according to a document the company filed with the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday. The orbital flight test would mark the first time SpaceX stacks both elements of its massive Starship system together, the next key development step in its attempt to build a rocket that could one day land on Mars.
As outlined in the document, a super heavy booster stage will launch Starship from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, facilities and separate in midair nearly three minutes into flight. About five minutes later, that booster stage will return back to Earth and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico — or as SpaceX puts it: it will “perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore.”
Meanwhile, Starship (the top half of the entire rocket system) will continue into orbit, nearly completing a full trip around Earth before plunging back through the atmosphere over Hawaii roughly 90 minutes after launching from Texas. Starship will aim to nail a “powered, targeted landing” on the ocean about 62 miles off the northwest coast of Kauai, the state’s northernmost island.
The document didn’t name a specific date for Starship’s orbital flight. CEO Elon Musk and SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell have said it could happen by the end of 2021, but an email that accompanied Thursday’s filing indicated it could happen any time in the next year, before March 1st, 2022. That email also says the maximum altitude for Starship is 72 miles — an extremely low orbital altitude sitting just north of the boundary between space and Earth’s atmosphere.
SpaceX’s Starship system is the centerpiece of Musk’s goal to enable routine interplanetary travel. The system, designed to send humans and up to 100 tons of cargo to the Moon and Mars, recently won a $2.9 billion contract to serve as NASA’s first ride to the Moon carrying astronauts since 1972. SpaceX has launched five high-altitude Starship prototypes from its south Texas rocket facilities since December, nailing a successful landing on its fifth test flight earlier this month. A few more of those suborbital “hop” tests are planned in the next month or so.
Whenever it happens, the orbital test will demonstrate Starship maneuvers that can’t be simulated using computers, SpaceX says in the document. “SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally.” The flight data gleaned from Starship’s test “will anchor any changes in vehicle design... and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations,” SpaceX said.
Musk has envisioned using Starship for rapid orbit-based transportation between any two cities on Earth, an ambitious (or pretty wild) idea called point-to-point travel. A Starship trip (Startrip?) between New York and London, for example, would take an hour. The 90-minute trip from Texas to Hawaii somewhat mirrors the idea, though it’s just a test, and it’s been a while since SpaceX or Musk have discussed any updates on point-to-point travel plans.
With its new Moon lander contract from NASA — which has stirred quite a bit of FOMO in the space industry, likely to NASA’s ire — SpaceX is racing to test Starship for deep-space missions with a deadline to put humans on the lunar surface by 2024.