SpaceX plans to have its first Starship test flight to orbit launch from Texas and splashdown off the coast of an island in Hawaii, according to a document the company filed with the FCC on Thursday. The orbital flight test would mark the first time SpaceX stacks both elements of its massive Starship system together, the next key development step in its attempt to build a rocket that could one day land on Mars.
As outlined in the document, a super-heavy booster stage will launch Starship from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas facilities and separate mid-air nearly three minutes into flight. That booster stage will return back to Earth and splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico — or, as SpaceX puts it: it will “perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore.”
Meanwhile, Starship (the top half of the entire rocket system) will continue into orbit, nearly completing a full trip around Earth before re-entering near Hawaii and splashing down about 62 miles off the northwest coast of Kauai, the state’s northernmost island.
SpaceX’s Starship system is the centerpiece of CEO Elon Musk’s goal to enable routine interplanetary travel. The system, designed to send humans and up to 100 tons of cargo to the Moon and Mars, recently won a $2.9 billion contract to serve as NASA’s first ride to the moon since 1972. SpaceX has launched five high-altitude Starship prototypes from its south Texas rocket facilities since December, nailing a successful landing on its fifth test flight earlier this month.
The orbital test will demonstrate Starship maneuvers that can’t be simulated using computers, SpaceX says in the document. “SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally.” The flight data gleaned from Starship’s test “will anchor any changes in vehicle design… and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations,” SpaceX said.