Get ready: SpaceX Starship will try to fly again soon

An unprecedented space event, and it's happening soon.
By Elisha Sauers  on 
SpaceX getting ready to launch Starship
SpaceX's Starship is about to launch into space for the first time. Credit: SpaceX

Elon Musk lost his claim as having the most powerful space-worthy rocket when NASA blasted its own mega rocket to the moon in November.

But the SpaceX founder could win back the title with his company's next big project: Starship.

Though the company was unsuccessful during its first try on April 20 —the skyscraping rocket and spacecraft blasted off only to tumble out of control a few minutes later — SpaceX is confident its Starship will reach space soon, breaking records and making history.

During an orbital test flight, the colossal booster needs to separate about three minutes after liftoff and drop in the Gulf of Mexico, according to federal filings(opens in a new tab). It should then fly in space around Earth at an altitude of over 150 miles before splashing down off the Hawaiian coast(opens in a new tab). The whole journey should last about 1.5 hours, if it goes as planned.

UPDATE: Apr. 20, 2023, 11:20 a.m. EDT SpaceX's first attempt at launching Starship on an uncrewed test flight in space exploded in a fiery blast over the Gulf of Mexico just minutes after liftoff Thursday, April 20, 2023. The team will likely try again to reach space in "a few months," Musk said in a tweet after the incident.

This will be a crucial demonstration of hardware that NASA is depending on to get humans back on the moon in the next few years. And, if successful, it'll mean Musk is one small step closer to realizing his personal dream of building a city on Mars.

The billionaire business magnate has oversold timelines in the past, but here's what we know so far about when SpaceX will try this daunting feat again.

What is the SpaceX Starship?

Starship is a super-heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft, built to carry immense cargo and numerous astronauts into deep space.

The 400-foot-tall stainless steel tower looms over NASA's rocket, the Space Launch System. It would take about five billboards stacked on top of the latter to measure up to Musk's space vehicle. SpaceX estimates its rocket also has about twice as much thrust.

The rocket is made of stainless steel, a material Musk is particularly fond of due to its relatively low price. Unlike NASA's mega moon rocket, which flies on super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen, this beast is fueled with 10 million pounds of liquid methane and oxygen. The new fuel can be stored at more manageable temperatures(opens in a new tab) than liquid hydrogen, meaning it doesn't need as much insulation and is less prone to leaks, a problem that often stymies NASA launches.

SpaceX stacking Starship at the launch pad
SpaceX's Starship is made of stainless steel and runs on liquid methane. Credit: SpaceX

Starship is intended to eventually evolve into a fully reusable launch and landing system, designed for trips to the moon, Mars, and other destinations. Its reusability is "the holy grail of space," Musk said at a company event in South Texas in February 2022, because it will make spaceflight more affordable to the average person.

"It's a very hard thing to do," he said. "It's only barely possible with the physics of Earth."

"It's only barely possible with the physics of Earth."
SpaceX Starship landing on the moon
NASA tapped SpaceX to develop a human landing system version of Starship. Credit: SpaceX

How will NASA use Starship?

NASA plans to use Starships to land astronauts on the moon during Artemis III and IV(opens in a new tab), two upcoming missions which could come as early as 2025 and 2028, respectively.

The space agency has tapped SpaceX(opens in a new tab) to develop a human landing system version of Starship with a $4 billion contract. As part of the deal, the company will need to demonstrate an uncrewed test flight to the moon beforehand.

During Artemis III, Starship will transfer astronauts from NASA's Orion spacecraft to the lunar south pole and back. But in the fourth mission, Starship is expected to dock at a moon-orbiting space station, the yet-to-be-built Gateway, and ferry astronauts back and forth to the moon.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson told reporters in December 2022 that SpaceX appears to be on schedule with the contract and intends to do an uncrewed moon landing toward the end of this year. That mission would be followed by another landing with astronauts in late 2024.

"Slips are always possible because it's a brand new system," Nelson said. "But they have been quite impressive with what they have done with other systems."

When is Starship's space launch?

SpaceX has already tried to fly Starship once but didn't make it to space.

The rocket launched on April 20, exploding over the Gulf of Mexico about four minutes later. Though company officials said they'd need to investigate the incident to fully understand what went wrong, the rocket didn't separate from its colossal booster and continued to flip in the air. Some debris plummeted into the ocean after the rocket appeared to explode on its descent.

Before that, SpaceX scrubbed a launch during countdown operations on April 17 after encountering a frozen valve causing pressure issues.

Starship exploding during first attempt at flight test
SpaceX's Starship didn't make it to orbit during its first attempt to fly in space on April 20, 2023. It appeared to explode on its descent about four minutes after liftoff. Credit: SpaceX

The next try at the launch pad will likely happen in a few months, according to a tweet from Musk after the explosion.

Shortly into January, the company stacked the jumbo rocket at its launch pad, then loaded it with fuel for a so-called "wet dress rehearsal." SpaceX said the test, a key practice run for any new rocket, was successful.

The team disassembled Starship for a test fire of the rocket booster's 33 Raptor engines. Musk said 31 of the 33 engines fired for the full duration of the ground test — "still enough engines to reach orbit," Musk tweeted on Feb. 9.

"Slips are always possible because it's a brand new system. But they have been quite impressive with what they have done with other systems."

Where will Starship launch?

Perhaps surprisingly, Starship won't lift off from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where most space fans are accustomed to watching historically significant launches.

Instead, it will take off from Boca Chica, Texas, at SpaceX's own spaceport known as Starbase. Eventually, the company will launch the rocket from a site under construction in the outer perimeter of the famous Florida pad that shot Apollo 11 to the moon.

"Their plan is that they're going to do a few test flights there," in South Texas, Nelson said. "Once they have the confidence, they will bring the missions to the Cape."

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How can I watch the Starship launch?

If you're not on the list to get onto SpaceX's private Starbase but you're in the South Texas area, you could try viewing future flight tests from a public beach on South Padre Island, such as Isla Blanca Park(opens in a new tab).

For viewers at home, SpaceX has been starting a live broadcast of the launch countdown about 45 minutes before liftoff. The livestream feeds were available on Youtube. You can watch the previous ordeal, from ignition to explosion, here, starting at 44:54:

How likely is Starship to succeed?

Well, SpaceX already struck out on the first launch, and that wasn't entirely unexpected.

"We cleared the (launch) tower, which honestly, was our only hope," said Kate Tice, a quality systems engineering manager for the company, during the live launch broadcast.

SpaceX has launched partial prototypes of Starship to practice landing, and several exploded or crashed in the process. One succeeded in returning unscathed, however, in May 2021, after flying about six miles up in the sky.

Musk, who doesn't parse words when it comes to the realities of spaceflight, once said Starship's test in space wasn't likely to succeed on the first try.

"There's a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful."

"There's a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful," he said during a video conference(opens in a new tab) with a National Academies panel in 2021. "But I think we will make a lot of progress."

NASA administrator Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on the bold effort April 20, stating that great achievements through history have demanded "some level of calculated risk."

What is SpaceX's plan for Mars?

The SpaceX founder's ultimate vision is to use a fleet of Starships to send 1 million(opens in a new tab) humans to Mars by 2050.

To be clear, Musk doesn't just want to establish a place for people to visit but a self-sustaining city. He imagines that, with a bit of warming, humans could restore a thick atmosphere and oceans on Mars, making it a more hospitable environment, even able to grow crops.

"There's a fundamental juncture in the history of really any civilization on a single planet, which is, do you get to the second planet, or do you not?" Musk told the National Academies in 2021. "I propose we do, and I think we should as soon as possible."

SpaceX test firing Starship on the ground
SpaceX test fired a Starship prototype spacecraft on the ground in December. Credit: SpaceX
"There's a fundamental juncture in the history of really any civilization on a single planet, which is, do you get to the second planet, or do you not?"

The spacecraft would be spacious enough for 100 passengers, along with their luggage, plus the materials to build homes, businesses, rocket fuel stations, and iron foundries.

The journey getting there would be long, Musk said, but the Starship would have entertainment(opens in a new tab), such as zero-gravity games, movies, lectures, and a restaurant.

"It can't feel cramped or boring," he said at the International Astronautical Congress in 2016, in Guadalajara, Mexico. "It'll be really fun to go. You'll have a great time."

Note: A version of this article was originally published Feb. 4, 2023.

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Elisha Sauers

Elisha Sauers is the space and future tech reporter for Mashable, interested in asteroids, astronauts, and astro nuts. In over 15 years of reporting, she's covered a variety of topics, including health, business, and government, with a penchant for FOIA and other public records requests. She previously worked for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, and The Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, now known as The Capital-Gazette. She's won numerous state awards for beat reporting and national recognition(opens in a new tab) for narrative storytelling. Send space tips and story ideas to [email protected](opens in a new tab) or text 443-684-2489. Follow her on Twitter at @elishasauers(opens in a new tab)

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