Elon Musk’s levelheaded realism has tended to underestimate the odds of success. Still, the SpaceX CEO is more confident that Starship will fly again than he was when the program’s first attempt went wrong earlier this year. Speaking onstage at the 74th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Baku, Azerbaijan, Musk said he expects the rocket’s third high-altitude launch and freefall landing to be successful.
A fundamental change for the second test flight, scheduled for this week, is that SpaceX will ignite the rocket’s second stage while it is still connected to the first. This will give engineers crucial data on how the two stages separate during ascent. It will also help to eliminate the possibility that a failure to disconnect could lead to another explosion like the one that crippled Starship during its first in-flight test in April.
The second test flight of Starship will likely be the first time that the 400-foot-tall stainless steel rocket has been able to separate its upper and lower stages. That is a big deal because it is an essential prerequisite for completing the rocket’s final form, designed to transport cargo and astronauts to Mars. Currently, Starship produces 16 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, which will rise to three times that amount after future engine upgrades. That would put the vehicle ahead of NASA’s Space Launch System, built to send crewed missions to the Moon and beyond.
Musk believes that SpaceX will be ready to relaunch Starship by late July or early August, assuming federal regulators don’t throw in any last-minute hiccups. However, the CEO has oversold many of his timelines, so it is prudent to treat that prediction cautiously.
SpaceX is working to implement “well over a thousand changes” to Starship and fix its Boca Chica, Texas launch pad ahead of the rocket’s next orbital test this summer. The company is also preparing to start building the vehicle’s crew modules, which will be used for the company’s eventual Mars landing mission.
A successful test flight of Starship would be a massive milestone for Musk, who is determined to prove that humanity can live and work in space. He has been vocal about his belief that the human race will only survive if it makes a home on other planets.
But even if the company successfully lands Starship on Monday, it’s unlikely that the behemoth rocket will be ready to carry people in 2024 as planned. If the vehicle is not ready by then, it may be years before it can complete a full lunar transit and make its first crewed landing on the Red Planet. Then, other issues will be tackled, such as ensuring that the spacecraft can safely return to Earth with its passengers.