Starship: SpaceX will soon overtake NASA to have the world's most powerful rocket

The fully reusable Starship is expected to overtake NASA's SLS as the world's most powerful rocket.
Chris Young
Starship at SpaceX's Starbase facility.
Starship at SpaceX's Starbase facility.


SpaceX is preparing for the orbital launch of Starship, the massive fully reusable rocket it hopes to use to eventually send humans to Mars.

SpaceX has explained in a regulatory filing that its test flight will last around 90 minutes and the beginning of its journey will see it roaring over the Gulf of Mexico as it makes its way to orbit.

As The Washington Post points out, there is no concrete date set for the first orbital flight of Starship, and several dates voiced by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and President Gwynne Shotwell have already come and gone. Still, the massive rocket is clearly nearing the end of its pre-launch test campaign.

Starship will be the world's most powerful rocket

SpaceX is using its proprietary next-generation Raptor engines for Starship and it has tested a number of these during recent static fire tests on both Booster 7 and Ship 24 — the Super Heavy prototype and the Starship first stage that are likely to be used for the orbital launch.

Fully stacked, Starship will be taller than NASA's Artemis I rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which was recently crowned as the most powerful rocket of all time. If all goes to plan, Starship will also regain that crown for SpaceX — the company previously held the record with its Falcon Heavy rocket.

SLS produced about 9.5 million lbs of thrust at liftoff while Falcon Heavy essentially uses three Falcon 9 boosters strapped together to produce 5 million lbs of thrust. Starship is expected to smash the record set by SLS by producing a massive 17 million lbs of thrust.

Still, Starship is some way off from going operational, and the orbital test flight is not guaranteed to be a success. "There's a lot of risks associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful, but I think we'll make a lot of progress," Musk explained last year, during a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel. 

SpaceX's strategy: How to follow up on a record-breaking year

SpaceX has a policy of planning for setbacks during the testing and development phase of its rockets and collecting as much data as possible when something does go wrong.

As per The Washington Post, Abhi Tripathi, a former director at SpaceX, recently said "it's better to lose them now than to lose them because you left data on the table because you were too scared to have a failure in public during the development phase.

At SpaceX, "risk-taking, as long as it is safe to personnel and to property, is highly encouraged," they added.

It's a strategy that has served SpaceX well thus far, as it has had a record-breaking year, having surpassed its own record for Falcon 9 rocket launches in a year back in October. In May last year, SpaceX landed a Starship prototype for the first time following a high-altitude flight test.

That successful landing took place after a number of explosive touchdowns at the launchpad. It will be fascinating to see whether Starship aces its first landing attempt — set to take place on the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii — after an orbital test flight. We may not have to wait much longer to find out. Especially as Elon Musk said Starship is about two static fire tests from launch two static fire tests ago.

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