SpaceX plans quick turnaround for next Starship flight

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WASHINGTON – SpaceX hopes to conduct the next launch of its Starship vehicle in early May, a schedule that will depend on how quickly it can obtain a modified launch license.

Speaking at the Satellite 2024 conference on March 19, Gwynne Shotwell, president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, said the company was still reviewing data from third integrated launch of the vehicle on March 14 but is expected to be ready to fly again soon.

“We are still reviewing the data” from the flight, he said when asked about analyzing the mission data. “It was an incredibly successful flight. “We got exactly where we wanted to get.”

On that launch, both the Super Heavy booster and Starship’s upper stage performed as expected in its ascent, placing the vehicle on its planned suborbital trajectory. Starship’s payload door opened while in space and a propellant transfer demonstration began, moving liquid oxygen between two tanks on the vehicle.

However, a planned restart of Starship’s Raptor engines did not take place while in space, which the company attributed to an induced rollover in the vehicle. During re-entry, the vehicle broke up at approximately 65 kilometers altitude. The Super Heavy booster also exploded during the final stages of its descent into the Gulf of Mexico during a planned landing.

“We’ll find out what happened on both legs,” he said, without discussing what might have gone wrong on either leg, “and hopefully we’ll be flying again in about six weeks,” or in early May.

He added that the company does not expect to deploy Starlink satellites in the next Starship launch, as some had speculated. “Things are still in trade, but I think we’re really going to focus on getting the reentry right and making sure we can land these things where we want.”

That timeline will depend on completing a mishap investigation that must be approved by the Federal Aviation Administration, which would then have to modify the existing launch license for Starship before the next launch.

Speaking at Payload’s Space Capitol III event on March 18, Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said he did not anticipate that investigation would reveal major problems that could significantly delay the next launch.

“It ended in what we called a mishap, but in the end we considered it a successful launch attempt,” he said, because it resulted in no injuries or property damage. “SpaceX was able to collect a lot of data from that launch.”

He said he expected SpaceX to quickly provide an investigation report into the mishap, noting that after Starship’s second flight the company completed that report within several weeks. “We hope the same thing happens here. We didn’t see anything important. “We do not believe there are any safety-critical systems that are involved.”

The FAA has updated SpaceX’s Starship launch license after each flight to date to reflect changes to the mission, such as the different suborbital trajectory used on the most recent flight. However, Coleman said the agency wants to move to a process where the license is valid for a “portfolio of releases” rather than individual releases. This is particularly important, he added, because SpaceX is planning six to nine more Starship launches this year.

This is part of a broader effort to streamline the launch licensing process to address criticism from industry and Congress that the FAA is moving too slowly in approving launch licenses under a familiar new set of regulations. as Part 450. Coleman announced at the FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference. Conference of February 21 that agency would establish aerospace regulatory committeeor SpARC, to formally gather industry input on ways to improve Part 450.

Shotwell, on the Satellite 2024 conference panel, did not mention how many Starship launches the company plans to make this year, but said the focus is on getting the vehicle up and running.

“I would love to put Starship into orbit, deploy satellites and recover both stages,” he said, “with rapid recovery on those stages as well.”

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