2021 was an exciting year for SpaceX and its revolutionary "Starship" megarocket. But 2022? Not so much.
For months on end, space fans' eyes remained glued to online livestreams of the SpaceX Starbase in McGregor, Texas, knowing that at any moment a new rocket might appear on the landing pad -- or an engine test might erupt in fires of glory. From time to time, the incredible happened -- a Starship rocket would suddenly leap off the landing pad, sail miles into the air, and then fall back to Earth to attempt a landing.
Granted, more often than not these landing attempts would end in gigantic fireballs of Rapid Unplanned Disassembly -- but even that was pretty exciting! And things got even more exciting when, on May 5, 2021, SpaceX finally proved its concept, launching Starship SN15 -- and landing it, too.
But it's been crickets at Starbase ever since.
After SN15's successful touchdown, SpaceX quickly announced plans to take its next step to space, outlining an ambitious 90-minute flight plan that would send a new orbital-class Starship to first circumnavigate the globe, and then "soft-land" in the ocean. 18 months later, that Starship has yet to set sail.
But that may be about to change.
An announcement, and a mic drop
In what read like a routine press release, on August 18, 2022, tiny Japanese satellite communications concern SKY Perfect JSAT Holdings announced that it had hired SpaceX to launch its Superbird-9 comsat sometime in 2024. What was entirely not routine, however, was SKY's revelation of the rocketship that will carry Superbird-9 to orbit -- none other than the Starship itself.
That was it. That was the press release. Aside from some side notes about its space company partner (Airbus (EADSY 0.23%) will be building the satellite bus), the frequencies at which it will transmit (Ku and Ka bands), and its expected service life (15 years or more), SKY basically just dropped that Starship revelation and exited stage left.
The crowd goes wild
Back on SpaceX's Twitter feed, however, the crowd immediately went wild, with some 30,000 space fans "liking" SpaceX's recitation of the announcement, and hundreds more commenting.
After more than a year of silence on SpaceX's Starship launch plans, SKY had just spilled the beans, and confirmed that sometime in the next 28 months SpaceX will not only resume test launches of Starship, but will have moved beyond test flights, and proven that its Super Heavy booster is capable of launching Starship into orbit and that both Super Heavy and Starship can then land back on Earth.
Sometime in the next 28 months, the whole Starship ecosystem should have all its kinks worked out, to the point where it's able to begin sending commercial payloads into orbit.
This was the implication of SKY's contract announcement.
SpaceX has high hopes
So when does the action start? When do we start seeing Starship test flights over Texas again? That's an excellent question.
Two months ago, if you recall, Elon Musk assured investors in no uncertain terms that one "Starship will be ready to fly [in July.]" He went on to promise that a second Starship would be ready to accompany the first by August, "and then monthly thereafter."
Starship will be ready to fly next month. I was in the high bay & mega bay late last night reviewing progress.-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 14, 2022
Well, in case you haven't noticed, while it's not quite "thereafter" yet, it is already August, and neither the first nor the second promised Starships have yet lifted off.
That being said, the clock is now officially ticking on the countdown to Starship's first commercial launch. Musk may have missed a couple early deadlines already, but he's still under the gun to deliver on his big promise of a SKY satellite launch in 2024, and it's likely the action is going to kick off soon. Even more so because Starship's biggest (read: "only") rival in terms of launch capability and payload today, the Space Launch System (SLS) rocketship that Boeing (BA 0.43%) built for NASA, is due to take its own maiden voyage just a few days from now, on August 29.
The instant SLS takes off, SpaceX will lose its four-year title of owning the "world's biggest rocketship" -- and all the prestige and U.S. government contracts that come with it. In order to reclaim the crown, SpaceX simply must get Starship into orbit.
Bet on Musk trying to make that happen sooner rather than later.