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Will We See a Second Starship Launch this Week?

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All indications suggest–maybe. The closest thing to a tentative date from SpaceX was a tweet that stated, “No Earlier Than” (NET) Friday 11-17-23. Other clues like road closures, NOTAMs and maritime restriction have tantalize space enthusiast and photographers but each has come and gone with a series of expiration dates. Maybe the strongest indication of an impending launch was an email to press and photographers to apply for remote camera setup on Thursday 11-16-23. But even this has to be taken with a grain of salt because of still pending regulatory approvals by the Federal Aviation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Administrations.

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So where does this leave an eager rocket launch photographer and space enthusiast? On the edge of my seat. It is 22 hours of driving from Merritt Island, Florida to Boca Chica Beach, Texas. My camera batteries have to be charged and camera equipment packed days before an impending launch so as to make the two-day driving pilgrimage to Star Base. “Excitement Guaranteed” Elon Musk promised for the first launch of Starship24 and Super Heavy Booster7 and he didn’t disappoint. The excitement level and rush of experiencing the first Starship launch fueled an addiction. An addiction that now craves “excitement guaranteed” as promised again by Elon Musk. The anticipation and excitement of the unknown is a visceral pulse throbbing rhythm beating go! Go! GO!

OpenAI’s DALL·E. (2023). Mars or Bust: An Astronaut Family’s Journey

Mars or Bust

Elon Musk’s motivation for building the world’s largest rocket, Starship developed by SpaceX, is grounded in a multifaceted vision that encompasses both practical and aspirational goals.

Elon Musk has often spoke of his long-term vision of making humanity a multi-planetary species, with a particular focus on colonizing Mars. He believes it is crucial to become a multi-planetary species. He views Mars as the most viable option for establishing a self-sustaining colony that could safeguard humanity in the event of a catastrophe on Earth. Mars offers a wealth of opportunities for scientific research, from studying its geology and climate to searching for signs of past or present life. Establishing a human presence on Mars could dramatically accelerate our understanding of the Red Planet, as well as the broader solar system. The journey to Mars represents one of the greatest technological challenges of our time. For Musk, overcoming the myriad of engineering and logistical hurdles to make Mars travel possible is a worthwhile endeavor that can drive innovation and lead to advancements in many fields, including new propulsion systems, life support, and habitat construction. Another reason Elon Musk wants to go to Mars is to give people something to look forward to, something that inspires them. The adventure of going to Mars is a compelling narrative that has the potential to unite and excite people around a common goal of exploration and discovery. Establishing a human presence on Mars could potentially open up new economic frontiers. In the future, there is potential for Mars to have its own industries, economies, and even tourism. Finally, is Elon Musk’s personal legacy, preserving his interest in space and in the importance of space exploration. His work with SpaceX and the push to Mars is a significant part of his personal ambitions to impact the future of humanity.

Starship25 and Super Heavy Booster9 stacked together at Starbase in Texas. Image by Richard P Gallagher

Starship

Starship is developed by SpaceX and led by CEO Elon Musk. It is designed to be a fully reusable spacecraft and rocket system. It aims to support a wide array of missions, including satellite deployment, interplanetary missions, refueling and one day even crewed missions to the Moon and Mars.

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It is a two-staged rocket system that comprises the Starship spacecraft. The upper stage or people and cargo end of the rocket and the Super Heavy booster or first stage. It is of the largest rockets ever designed, with the full stack standing about 394 feet tall. Both stages are intended to be fully reusable, a key feature that sets it apart from most other rocket systems. Starship is expected to carry more than 100 metric tons to Earth orbit. It is constructed from primarily stainless steel, chosen for its strength, durability, and resistance to the extreme temperatures of reentry.

Starship’s capabilities and missions include orbital refueling which is one of its unique features which is crucial for deep space missions. It can be configured for cargo, crew, or a combination of both. Elon Musk vision’s is using Starship for creating a sustainable human presence on Mars. But first it will go to the Moon. Starship was selected by NASA for the Artemis program to land astronauts on the Moon where they will learn how to live and operate on the Moon for long periods of time. Finally, Starship will play a role in space tourism. Plans to offer space tourism flights will potentially revolutionizing access to space.

Starship24

The launch of SpaceX’s Starship 24 on April 20, 2023, was a momentous achievement that set new world records and created a yielded trove of data that will be used on all other Starship testing and development flights. The first integrated flight test was a landmark event, as it was the first time a fully stacked Starship left the ground. The launch occurred at 08:33 CDT (13:33 UTC) from SpaceX’s Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas​​. The prototype vehicle was destroyed less than four minutes after lifting off​​. The vehicle successfully passed through the phase of maximum dynamic pressure (max q) and entered supersonic flight, but issues with thrust vector control prevented stage separation. The Starship began to tumble, and the autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) was activated but did not immediately destroy the vehicle as intended. The vehicle disintegrated about 40 seconds later, nearly four minutes into the flight​​. Despite the unfortunate outcome, Starship 24 became the most powerful rocket ever flown, breaking the half-century-old record held by the Soviet Union’s N1 rocket​​.

This launch, while not achieving all its intended goals, provided valuable data for SpaceX’s ongoing development of the Starship rockets. The event underscores the challenges and complexities of space exploration, where each test, whether successful or not, contributes to the advancement of technology and our understanding of space travel.

Starship25

Starship 25 builds upon the knowledge gained from the first Starship test flight. Starship 25 has been stacked atop Booster 9, marking the first time these components have been assembled together with a brand new vented interstage. This new feature will allow the second stage to launch from atop the first stage while it is still firing​​. This is a more efficient use of fuel and speed. Other upgrades include additional charges for the vehicle’s flight termination system (FTS), addressing issues from the first flight where the automated FTS was not powerful enough. This enhancement aims to ensure the vehicle breaks apart as intended if the system activates during flight​​. New vents have been added to the aft section of Ship 25, similar to those on Booster 9, likely as part of a CO2 purge system to prevent fires in the engine section​​Ship 25 has reinforced welds between the rings at and below the quick disconnect umbilical plate, a modification implemented following structural testing issues on Ship 24​​. Each of the 33 Raptor engine on Ship 25 is now fully shielded, protecting their turbomachinery from potential damage​​. The launch structure has also undergone renovation with the addition of a water deluge system.

The flight of Booster 9 and Ship 25 is in the final stage of preparations, with a launch date tracking for mid-November. This is subject to regulatory approval, including an updated Biological Assessment under the Endangered Species Act as part of the FAA’s launch license process​​. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on the environmental review needed for launch approval​. Following FAA approval, SpaceX will issue media accreditation, replenish the Tank Farm, and arm the Flight Termination System on Ship 25. The vehicle will be restacked atop Booster 9 a day or so before launch countdown preparations​​​​.

The development of Starship 25 and Booster 9 showcases SpaceX’s relentless innovation and commitment to overcoming technical challenges. The upcoming test flight represents not just a significant milestone for SpaceX, but also a step forward in space exploration capabilities.

When Will It Go?

There’s an old adage that says, “you can’t force a grape to ripen” and so it is with Starship. It will launch when it’s ready. I do know one thing for certain, if I’m not there I won’t get the picture. Getting the picture is my reward. The trophy if you will, for keeping faith and not giving up hope. For being addicted to the excitement of not knowing and flying by the seat of your pants and for racing off on a pilgrimage to photograph a behemoth of a rocket and witness a history making moment as humans once again race into the unknow and “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Super Heavy Booster stands on the Launch Orbital Tower and Starship25 in the arms of “Mechazilla” Image by Richard P Gallagher

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