40. Will SpaceX's Starship reach orbit in 2023?
closes Dec 31

This is question #40 in the Astral Codex Ten 2023 Prediction Contest. The contest rules and full list of questions are available here. Market will resolve according to Scott Alexander’s judgment, as given through future posts on Astral Codex Ten.

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Blomfilter avatar
Blomfilteris predicting YES at 74%
MatthewRitter avatar
Matthew Ritter

How much does Musk matter to SpaceX at this point? I'm totally willing to believe "a lot" but he's also been very distracted for years now, and they've made progress.

This is especially relevant since he (might) finally be getting un-distracted from Twitter

Blomfilter avatar
Blomfilteris predicting YES at 65%

questions on elons Q n A on Twitter: https://twitter.com/thesheetztweetz/status/1652465498381066240

Musk: From a "pad standpoint, we are probably ready to launch in 6 to 8 weeks.'

NiklasWiklander avatar
Niklas Wiklanderbought Ṁ100 of NO

@Blomfilter Which translated from Muskian to english means 60 to 80 weeks.

Berg avatar
Bergbought Ṁ50 of YES
johnleoks avatar
johnleoksis predicting NO at 73%

@Berg Elon's famously accurate estimations.

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 71%
AlQuinn avatar
Al Quinnis predicting YES at 67%

@NGK that will buff out. let's go, Musk!

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 66%
Blomfilter avatar
Blomfilteris predicting YES at 68%

@NGK chopsticks are functional, digging trenches and pouring concrete arent a big deal https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evO4GedWfjs

Blomfilter avatar
Blomfilteris predicting YES at 68%

@Blomfilter also, what is stopping them from just launching a starship directly off the a concrete pad without a boostser attached? Once a starship lands on moon/mars, it has to blast off directly from where its landed, so thats potentially a test candidate situation right there

JoshuaWilkes avatar
Josh Wilkesis predicting NO at 73%

@Blomfilter A lot of people have said that the water table at Boca Chica is so high a trench won't be possible. I'm not sure that's 'confirmed', but it is widely believed.

They can definitely launch Starship off the pad without the booster, but it wouldn't get to orbit. SSTO, or Single Stage To Orbit, has never been achieved.

(I have actually seen it suggested that a stripped-down Starship could do it, because it has vacuum optimised- as well as sea level- engines, but even if true, this would be at the cost of basically all the data you'd want from the flight, which would be lost due to removing* all re-entry equipment)

*blind assertion from me

JonathanNankivell avatar
Jonathan Nankivellis predicting NO at 68%

@JoshuaWilkes The analysis I've seen suggests it could get to orbit as SSTO provided it has no payload: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rbYuf23Q0NM

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 70%

@Blomfilter Not necessarily true. Water table is extremely high at Boca Chica so that can cause issues. The tension steel between the piles has yielded and no longer provides tensioning force. They need to be cut, then new starter bars need to be epoxied in place then new steel can be put in. Not to say it can’t be done quickly but to then get FAA approval to fly again soon it seems like a tall order.

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 70%

@NGK This is just from what I can see in that photo. Who knows if it caused more issues that we can’t see

NGK avatar
NGKbought Ṁ0 of NO

I’m betting big on Starship not launching this year again. Even more confident it doesn’t reach orbit at this point as well.

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 65%

@NGK So much damage has been done to the Launch pad. I even doubt they launch again before developing a trench diversion system. Idk what they were thinking putting a concrete flat slab under 33 engines at like 10 m above tbh.

JasonLynch avatar
Jason Lynchis predicting YES at 71%

@NGK It does, just based on photos, look like the launch infrastructure is a bit more damaged than I originally thought, so I could easily see it taking a year to repair/reconstruct to better standards. (But I'm also hesitant to declare that definitively because I think we've seen things that looked terrible that ended up being ready to go again much faster than anyone thought.) I probably wouldn't bet yes at this point, but I don't know if I'm ready to all-out bet no, either.

Berg avatar
Bergis predicting YES at 71%

@NGK The crater looks scary, but all the important structures are intact. People making too much of a fuss.

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 66%

@Berg I think the damage implies a redesign of the launch platform itself. Repairing the pad won’t do much good if they’re forced to pour another pad after every launch

chrisjbillington avatar
Chris Billington

@NGK Elon says ready in 1-2 months. Whilst this is likely wildly optimistic (what's the best estimate of the Elon time dilation factor?), makes me not want to bet against another launch this year.

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 74%

@chrisjbillington Yea I mean I don't believe much of what Musk says anymore. lol. FSD is coming next year guys I promise!

chrisjbillington avatar
Chris Billington

@NGK About the timeline sure, but it seems the steel plate exists and others are estimating timelines that would still put it this year. The next launch may not reach orbit still, but I think the chances of an attempt are decent.

chrisjbillington avatar
Chris Billington

Best estimate of the Elon time dilation factor is 3.8, so 1–2 months translates to 3.8–7.6 months, or Aug 15th–Dec 8th.

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 71%

@chrisjbillington What about the ones that are yet to be fulfilled like Starship cargo to Mars by 2024 etc lmao

chrisjbillington avatar
Chris Billington

I believe in 2020 he predicted a crewed 2024 mission, if that's what you're referring to. So he has until 2035 or so to achieve that before It's wrong by a factor of 3.8.

We know his timelines are almost always too short, that just means this error should be measured and corrected for when using his predictions to estimate more realistic timelines.

NGK avatar
NGKis predicting NO at 60%

@Berg Also I don’t think all the important structures are intact. All that steel has yielded and will need to be replaced. It looks like tension steel required when you have raking columns above. Who knows if the structure is actually capable of handling the loads from another launch.

JasonLynch avatar
Jason Lynchis predicting YES at 77%

Today's integrated flight test was a good test and no doubt provided lots of data for the SpaceX teams, but there were issues before spacecraft separation and it did not reach any kind of orbit. My initial thoughts are that we won't see another test for 3-6 months depending on exactly how much work there is to do (or repair) on the launch infrastructure. Public documents indicate the next two flights will probably also be of the "borderline orbital" variety (with perigees in the atmosphere), so the question of "what counts as orbit" may unfortunately loom large by the end of the year. In theory, they could launch 4 more times this year, but 2 seems more likely from my view. (However, SpaceX has a way of defying my expectations sometimes.) There are additional vehicles in the pipeline and I don't think vehicle readiness is the long pole right now. Given all these factors, I'm trending toward more of a 60% chance of this resolving yes, but my confidence interval is very wide.

BTE avatar
Brian T. Edwardsis predicting YES at 87%
Mason avatar

SpaceX's Starship, oh so grand,
Will it reach orbit, as planned?
Elon Musk's vision, bold and bright,
2023 may be its flight.

JasonLynch avatar
Jason Lynchis predicting YES at 82%

My biggest actual concern for this market might actually be what constitutes "orbit" in Scott Alexander's judgment. That is, the current publicly available information (which could be outdated, of course) made it very possible that the trajectory for the upcoming orbital flight test will have a perigee within the atmosphere to eliminate the need for a deorbit burn and ensure the ship will quickly deorbit even if there is a failure to restart the engines. I could see people arguing that such a flight wouldn't count as orbital, and if it ends up being the sole flight this year, there could be questions. (That said, if that flight is successful enough to even potentially count, I think a second flight this year is almost a certainty, barring catastrophic damage to the launch infrastructure at Starbase.)

ACXBot avatar
ACX BotBot

I know nothing here on a technical level, except that there was high confidence this would happen last year and it didn’t, and also one has to be a little less on the ‘Elon’s physical projects are totally going to work’ than one was last year, I’d think? So I’m buying M20 of NO on general principles, but not getting further involved.

- Zvi Mowshowitz

AlQuinn avatar
Al Quinnis predicting NO at 86%

Did SpaceX ever fix that problem with the Raptor & Raptor 2 engines where they burn themselves up? The SpaceX fanboys don't like to talk about that so much, so maybe there are some problems yet to overcome (might be more important for landing than getting to orbit though)

Isaac228c avatar
Isaacbought Ṁ60 of YES

@AlQuinn that was never a major problem, they were just testing to see the limits of what the engines could do

AlQuinn avatar
Al Quinnis predicting NO at 84%

@Isaac228c They keep burning the engines (back when they actually tried to fly the thing) and it seems like every time they do static burn, they end up replacing a bunch of them afterwards

Isaac228c avatar
Isaacis predicting YES at 84%

@AlQuinn the newer raptor 2s are meant to be much more reliable, and static fires will always cause more damage to engines than in flight due to no flame diverter or sound suppression system

AlQuinn avatar
Al Quinnis predicting YES at 80%

@Isaac228c so a bunch of the raptor engines failed today (thought not the decisive problem)

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