These test flights demonstrate how SpaceX’s development style differs from NASA’s, Forczyk explains: While NASA tested every component to perfection before launching its Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, With federal agencies, Congress and the White House watching over the agency’s shoulder, SpaceX gets better by launching again and again, seeking to do better with each effort.
Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida who studies space economics, agrees. “SpaceX follows a development process where they test before fixing any issues, which results in failures. They are sometimes criticized for this, but it is a proven method that ultimately proves cheaper and faster,” he says.
Before they can launch again, SpaceX will need another launch license from the FAA, which they won’t be able to obtain until they complete their current joint investigation into the accident. The time between Starship’s first and second flights took seven months, thanks to the previous investigation, as well as SpaceX’s hardware overhaul and launch pad rebuild, but the third could come sooner . “I think the FAA will have less concerns this time because there was no skid failure and the explosion occurred at a much higher altitude. I think they will give SpaceX a green light faster this time,” says Niloofar Kamran, an aerospace engineer at Cornell College.
However, an ongoing lawsuit filed by environmental organizations and local groups near the Boca Chica, Texas, launch site could delay the Starship program if it forces the FAA to write a new environmental impact statement, a review more rigorous and longer.
SpaceX appears to be targeting early 2024 for its third test flight, based on the company’s filing with the Federal Communications Commission. Musk also wrote on X that the Starship’s flight hardware would be ready in three to four weeks. Once again, the goal will be to go almost completely around the world, re-enter the atmosphere and land near Hawaii.
SpaceX will need at least a few successful test flights, including an uncrewed lunar landing, before it can take people on board. While returning from Earth’s orbit is one thing, bringing astronauts safely back from the Moon is another. A lunar trip involves faster re-entry speeds and requires a spacecraft that can withstand warmer temperatures.
Each Artemis mission will actually require SpaceX to launch many spacecraft: the plan will be to transport nearly 20, each carrying fuel, to fill a propellant depot in Earth orbit. A modified version of the spacecraft would then use the depot to fill its tanks and head to its lunar landing site.
While SpaceX made some progress between the first and second test flights, Starship engineers have work to do to make the rocket safe for crewed flights with NASA and private partners. “With each test flight, they will have stricter standards, because they really have to act quickly,” says Forczyk.