A SpaceX starship booster has successfully launched 14 of its 33 Raptor engines and is likely the world’s most powerful active rocket.
In the history of space travel, only three or four other rockets have produced as much or more thrust than Super Heavy Booster 7 (B7) could have theoretically produced on November 14th. But the Soviet Energia and N1 rockets, as well as the US Saturn V and Space Shuttle, were all phased out a decade or more ago. Only SpaceX’s own Falcon Heavy rocket, fifth in line and capable of producing up to 2325 tons (5.13 million pounds) of thrust at sea level, is still operational and comes close.
Powered by 33 upgraded Raptor 2 engines, which SpaceX says can produce up to 230 tons (~510,000 lbf) each, Super Heavy could have produced up to 3220 tons (7.1 million pounds) of thrust than it can today fired 14 of its engines early. That probably means Starship is now the fourth most powerful rocket ever tested, ahead of NASA’s space shuttle but below the Soviet Energia. And even if all 14 engines were never throttled past 73%, SpaceX’s Starship booster probably still produced more thrust than any other active rocket in the world, beating Falcon Heavy. But if NASA has its way, Starship could hold that title for less than 36 hours.
As early as 1:04 a.m. EDT (06:04 UTC) on November 16, just over 35 hours after the record-breaking static shelling of the SpaceX spacecraft, NASA will make a third attempt to launch its massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to start at the end of August. At the specific request of Congress, which wanted to preserve shuttle jobs after the program ended in 2011, SLS essentially shuffles around space shuttle parts and replaces the reusable orbiter with an entirely expendable rocket. The Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) have been expanded and improved, and the orange outer tank has been stretched and transformed into a liquid rocket booster, attached to the shuttle’s three with four RS-25 engines.
If things go according to plan, these changes mean the SLS rocket will generate up to 3990 tons (8.8 million pounds) of thrust on first launch and overtake Super Heavy B7, but also make it the second most powerful launch vehicle in history after the Soviet one N1. However, N1 never succeeded, so SLS could become the most powerful rocket to ever reach orbit if its first launch is successful.
But just as SLS appears poised to oust Starship’s position as the world’s most powerful active missile almost immediately, Starship is poised to beat SLS to become the most powerful missile ever flown — successfully or not — if it serves either as attempting their first orbital launch next month or early next year. With all 33 Raptors at full throttle, Starship can generate almost 7600 tons (16.7 million pounds) of thrust on launch, beating the previous record holder – the Soviet N1 rocket – by almost 60%.
Even if that first launch attempt is unsuccessful, SpaceX appears to be preparing for several more rapid-fire launches that will continue until success is achieved, beating the other (potential) record set by SLS. SpaceX has demonstrated this ability before with Starship, completing five flights on five different prototypes in less than six months. As a result, it’s likely to be the case by the second launch of SLS in the mid-2020s third most powerful rocket, second only to N1 and Starship.
That somewhat uncomfortable excitement should be tempered by the fact that Starship and SLS are both integral parts of NASA’s Artemis program for now. To return astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972, SLS and its Orion spacecraft will take NASA astronauts to lunar orbit, where they will board a Starship-derived lunar lander. Starship will then land these astronauts on the lunar surface, support surface operations for about a week, and then return them to lunar orbit where Orion will transport them back to Earth.
At the moment there is still a lot of work to be done before NASA and SpaceX will be ready to support this manned moon landing. But Starship’s static fire on Monday and possible SLS launch on Wednesday both represent significant, tangible steps toward that lofty goal.
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