WASHINGTON – SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Wednesday the company plans to attempt a major Starship milestone this week.
SpaceX on Thursday will attempt a “static fire,” simultaneously testing all 33 engines that sit at the base of Starship’s rocket booster. The company conducted a test firing of 14 of those engines in November, as it pushes to make an orbital launch attempt with a Starship prototype.
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“Tomorrow is a big day for SpaceX,” Shotwell said, speaking at the FAA’s annual Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.
Starship is a nearly 400-foot-tall rocket, designed to carry cargo and people beyond Earth. It is also critical to NASA’s plan to return astronauts to the moon, with SpaceX having won a nearly $3 billion contract from the agency in 2021.
Last month the company completed a “wet dress rehearsal,” with Starship prototype 24 stacked on Super Heavy booster prototype 7, in the most recent crucial test.
Speaking to reporters at the conference, Shotwell on Wednesday emphasized the scale of the prototypes and the experimental nature of a first attempt.
“Keep in mind, this first one is really a test flight … and the real goal is to not blow up the launch pad, that is success,” Shotwell said.
While SpaceX had hoped to conduct the first orbital Starship launch as early as summer 2021, delays in progress and regulatory approval have pushed back that timeline. SpaceX needs a license from the FAA in order to launch Starship, with Shotwell saying “I think we’ll be ready to fly right at the timeframe that we get the license.”
But on the development side, Shotwell said there have been “no big problems” that caused those delays.
“There’s a lot of little things to get done, especially because we weren’t really focusing on the orbital ship — we were focusing on the production systems that will build the ship. We know how to get to orbit,” Shotwell said.
While the company has ramped up the pace of its Falcon series of rockets to a launch every four days, Shotwell noted that those existing rockets can’t be produced at a daily rate.
“Why can’t we build a rocket every day? That’s what we’re focusing on with Starship, is attacking every part of the production process to be able to build lots of these machines,” Shotwell said.
SpaceX is already signing deals to fly crews on Starship, including three privately booked flights by wealthy individuals aiming to go to space and the moon. But Shotwell reiterated a previous caution that CEO Elon Musk has given, noting that Starship needs to launch on “hundreds of flights before we fly people.”
‘Starlink will make money’
Shotwell noted that SpaceX’s current main product, its Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules, “makes money,” with the company’s regular outside fundraising going to its ambitious development projects.
SpaceX raised $750 million at a $137 billion valuation during its most recent round of funding, CNBC reported last month.
“The cash flow from those operations basically pay for our development. Where it falls short, we take external investment,” Shotwell said.
For its satellite internet service Starlink, the company is making progress in the financial stability of the business. SpaceX has launched more than 3,500 satellites to create a global broadband network, with the service reaching 1 million subscribers in December.
“This year, Starlink will make money. We actually had a cash flow positive quarter last year,” Shotwell said.
Asked about SpaceX’s plans to IPO its Starlink business, Shotwell on Wednesday said there is “no update.” Last year, CNBC reported that Musk told employees that the company isn’t likely to take Starlink public until 2025 or later.