It has been a few quiet weeks since SpaceX’s last Starship high-altitude test in early May, when a SN15 prototype soared to an altitude of 10 km (33,000 ft), flipped onto its “belly” mid-sky, and successfully landed in one piece.
That giant stainless steel rocket stood 150 feet tall, but it was just the upper stage of the final Starship system designed to carry cargo and humans to the Moon and Mars. For the past few weeks, SpaceX has been assembling the next-generation upper stage prototype, SN20, and its even bigger booster, the Super Heavy, at the company’s Boca Chica test site.
Elon Musk has said he wants to see Starship reach orbit by the end of this year. That ambitious timelines actually looks feasible now that SpaceX plans to launch the first Starship orbital test as soon as next month.
“We’re shooting for July,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) on Friday. “I am hoping we make it, but we all know this is difficult. We are really on the cusp of flying that system, or at least attempting the first orbital flight of that system, in the very near term.”
SpaceX outlined its planned course for Starship’s orbital flight in a filing with the Federal Communications Commission in May. According to the plan, Starship would lift off from Boca Chica just like previous high-altitude tests. After reaching orbital altitude, the Super Heavy booster would land in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast from Boca Chica, while the upper stage would go into orbit for a little while before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
The initial tests will not focus on controlled landing, although the ultimate goal will be to control land both the Super Heavy booster and the upper stage and make them fully reusable.
SpaceX still needs to obtain a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for the orbital flight.