On Monday, SpaceX completed its first attempt to load a fully stacked Starship rocket with propellants, and it did so with surprisingly little fanfare. The seemingly successful test marks a major milestone for the company, setting the stage for a static fire test and an eventual orbital launch.
The company ran the wet dress rehearsal at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas. Standing 394 feet (120 meters) tall and held tightly by the launch tower’s mechanical arms, the fully stacked Starship gulped over 10 million pounds of liquid methane and oxygen propellants. During wet dress rehearsals, rockets are fully loaded with propellants while ground teams rehearse the countdown, but there’s no ignition of the engines or launch.
SpaceX refrained from making formal announcements prior to the test, but third-party observers on the ground could tell what was happening; thick plumes of methane vented out from the rocket while coatings of frost formed on its surface. Only after the test was finished did SpaceX announce what went down.
“Starship completed its first full flight-like wet dress rehearsal at Starbase today,” the company wrote in a tweet. “This was the first time an integrated Ship and Booster were fully loaded with more than 10 million pounds of propellant,” SpaceX said, adding that Monday’s test “will help verify a full launch countdown sequence, as well as the performance of Starship and the orbital pad for flight-like operations.”
That SpaceX managed to succeed with a wet dress rehearsal on its first attempt may seem surprising, especially given the challenges NASA faced when attempting the same for its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The space agency finally “succeeded” after its fourth wet dress attempt and was compelled to conduct a veritable fifth wet dress rehearsal on September 21, 2022 after failing to launch the rocket on two attempts. The situation with SpaceX is a bit different, as it has already performed limited static fire tests of the booster, but most critically, Starship uses methane and not hydrogen, the latter propellant being notoriously difficult to handle owing to its tendency to leak out of the smallest openings.
More on this story: Why Hydrogen Leaks Continue to Be a Major Headache for NASA Launches
The next major milestone will likely be a static fire test, during which all 33 Raptor engines will be set alight. Each Raptor engine is capable of exerting nearly 510,000 pounds of thrust, for a combined liftoff thrust of 16.7 million pounds. When Starship finally takes flight, it will become the most powerful operational rocket in the world, exceeding SLS by a significant margin (SLS Block 1 configuration has 8.8 million pounds of thrust).
A successful static fire test would effectively conclude the major testing milestones and set the stage for Starship’s inaugural orbital launch. In a tweet earlier this month, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the company has “a real shot at late February,” while a “March launch attempt appears highly likely.” Musk’s timelines are notoriously unreliable, but we can safely say that SpaceX does appear to be making steady progress with its megarocket and that a maiden voyage is forthcoming.
Musk, perhaps more than anyone, is hoping to see Starship take flight in the very near future. SpaceX has big plans for the vehicle, positioning it as a rocket for delivering people, cargo, and satellites to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the solar system. More pressingly, the company would very much like to use Starship to deliver its second-generation Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit, as the Falcon 9 rocket is ill-suited for the task, requiring the company to produce smaller Gen2 variants.
NASA is also desperate for the two-stage megarocket to succeed, as SpaceX is under contract with the space agency to develop Starship into two distinct Artemis lunar landers. The first of these missions, Artemis 3, is currently scheduled for 2025, which isn’t too far from now.