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King of rockets, NASA's SLS could soon be usurped by SpaceX's Starship

Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in News & Features

Beginning with Artemis IV, a larger version of the SLS using what NASA calls the Exploration Upper Stage, looks to cart parts of a small lunar space station called Gateway to help lay the groundwork for a continued presence at the moon. Beginning with Artemis IX likely not until the 2030s, a new version of the solid rocket boosters look to increase SLS’s power to 9.2 million pounds of thrust at liftoff.

That future, though, could see Elon Musk’s in-development Starship with Super Heavy booster for SpaceX not only take the title of most powerful rocket to make it to orbit but also be considered as an alternative for crew and cargo launch capability.

Using 33 of SpaceX’s new Raptor 2 engines, the Super Heavy booster will produce 17 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, which is nearly double that seen, heard and felt on the Artemis I launch.

The Starship itself has six Raptor 2 engines, and will have the capacity to bring more than 220,000 pounds of crew and cargo to low-Earth orbit, which is slightly more than the current SLS capacity.

The Starship and Super Heavy combination is gearing up for its first orbital test flight from SpaceX’s facility Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. It last performed a static fire on Nov. 14 with 14 of the engines with Musk posting to Twitter the launch attempt could be coming up before the end of this year.

The increasing cadence of Raptor static fires follows a July incident that left the booster in need of repairs when SpaceX lit up all 33, resulting in a fireball on the pad.


Combined, Starship and Super Heavy stand at 395 feet tall. SpaceX has stated it prefers to keep Starship test flights in Texas, but is also building out launch facilities for the next generation rocket at KSC, where it launches its current stable of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

“SpaceX is moving at light speed to get the capability to conduct launch operations here,” said Frank DiBello, president and CEO of Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency. “So we’re very optimistic that it won’t be long.”

But the first launch will be from Texas with Starship separating from the Super Heavy booster, which will land on a SpaceX vessel 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Starship then seeks to achieve orbit for at least one trip around the Earth and land in the Pacific Ocean. It’s unclear how many test launches will take place from Texas before Florida operations get underway.

“It’s a large vehicle, no question about it, and I think it will be a sight to see no matter where it launches from, but I expect the workhorse function of Starship is going to be conducted here,” DiBello said. “That’s our goal anyway. We’re partnering with SpaceX to try to make that happen.”


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