Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has accomplished a significant wet-dress rehearsal test for its fully-assembled Starship rocket on its first attempt, taking a big step towards the first orbital launch attempt.
This achievement was a bit unexpected, as the firm has typically prioritized speed and anticipated failures in the development of the rocket.
Starship completed its first full flight-like wet dress rehearsal at Starbase today. This was the first time an integrated Ship and Booster were fully loaded with more than 10 million pounds of propellant pic.twitter.com/btprGNGZ1G— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 24, 2023
The rocket, measuring around 120 meters tall and 9 meters wide, is the largest ever assembled. It is meant to launch more than 100 metric tons to low Earth orbit (LEO) in a fully-reusable configuration. At liftoff, 33 Raptor engines underneath the Booster will produce up to 7590 tons of thrust, making it more powerful than any rocket in history by a large margin.
Testing and Development Approach
On Monday, January 23rd, the rocket likely became the heaviest rocket ever after SpaceX fully loaded the vehicle with propellant.
Since SpaceX began assembling the prototype in an empty Texas field in 2018, the program has been almost exclusively managed to prioritize speed and anticipate failures. The company almost always preferred to construct, test, and learn from minimum-viable-product prototypes as quickly as possible, even if that meant that failures were guaranteed.
SpaceX anticipated failures and used them as opportunities to learn, always having a backup prototype to continue the development process. These prototypes rarely completed ground or flight tests on their first try, as SpaceX was simultaneously learning – often with catastrophic results – how to test and operate those vehicles.
The culmination of that failure-as-an-option strategy was a series of seven suborbital tests – two short hops of identical prototypes and five launch and landing attempts of five more advanced prototypes between August 2020 and May 2021.
On the fifth attempt, after four failures, a full-scale prototype (SN15) successfully launched to 12.5 kilometers, shut off its engines, fell back to Earth, reignited its engines, flipped around, and landed in one piece.
A Change In The Approach
In the second half of 2022, however, SpaceX decided to dramatically change the program’s approach to risk management and systems engineering.
The testing has become exceptionally cautious over the last several months, as a result. This change in approach appears to have paid off, as the company was able to complete a full flight-like wet dress rehearsal test and gather data that will “help verify a full launch countdown sequence, as well as the performance of the rocket and the orbital pad fueling systems”, according to the company.
Today’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— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 24, 2023
Elon Musk has confirmed the possibility of launching the world’s largest and most powerful rocket in a matter of weeks: several key milestones are being worked on to ready the vehicle for space. The Wet-Dress Rehearsal (WDR) appeared to go according to plan.
Ship 24 (the upper stage) along with its First Stage, Booster 7, collectively completed dozens of separate proof tests and static fires since mid-2022. This was a first-time test for the full-stack configuration.
The Plan Ahead
Booster 7 will now undergo the highly anticipated 33-Engine Static Fire Test, that if successful, will confirm the good status of the vehicle before the launch of the full-stack rocket.
According to public plans, Booster 7 is set to splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, with Ship 24 conducting a water landing near Hawaii.