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This may finally be the year we see some new chunky rockets take flight


The Falcon Heavy rocket is the most recent heavy-lift booster to debut, and that was more than three years ago.
Enlarge / The Falcon Heavy rocket is the most recent heavy-lift booster to debut, and that was more than three years ago.

A little more than three years ago, Ars published an article assessing the potential for four large rockets to make their debut in 2020. Spoiler alert: none of them made it. None even made it in 2021. So will next year finally be the year for some of them?

Probably. Maybe. We sure hope so.

At the time of the older article’s publication, July 2018, four heavy-lift rockets still had scheduled launch dates for 2020—the European Space Agency’s Ariane 6, NASA’s Space Launch System, Blue Origin’s New Glenn, and United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket. The article estimated the actual launch dates, predicting that Europe’s Ariane 6 would be the only rocket to make a launch attempt in 2020. All four of the predicted launch dates proved overly optimistic, alas.

The 2018 article also included a brief mention of SpaceX’s next heavy-lift rocket, then called the “Big Falcon Rocket,” or BFR. The rocket has since undergone several name changes, with the boost stage now called “Super Heavy” while the upper stage is known as “Starship.” At the time, there were questions about the funding for this rocket. Those questions have since been answered and, remarkably—though it is larger, more complex, and was begun far later than the other four large rockets—Starship might actually make an orbital launch attempt before all of the others.

This article will provide an updated estimate for the launch of each of these heavy-lift rockets, as well as a quick look at some of the smaller rockets that could make their launch debuts in 2022. Here’s hoping for a busy and successful year for all involved!

A Super Heavy booster rolls out of SpaceX's production facilities in South Texas earlier in 2021.
Enlarge / A Super Heavy booster rolls out of SpaceX’s production facilities in South Texas earlier in 2021.

Super Heavy

Capacity to LEO: 150 tons

Current official launch date: “January or February” 2022

Our previous estimated launch date: N/A

Our current estimated launch date: Q2 2022

Confidence: Medium

SpaceX has already launched its Starship vehicle on multiple hops to an altitude of about 10 km, but the real test will come with an orbital test flight. This is scheduled to occur during the early part of 2022, pending completion of the Federal Aviation Administration’s environmental review and permitting process. Issues related to the Raptor rocket engine will need to be solved, too.

What seems clear is that, once the first Super Heavy vehicle launches on a flight test, we probably will see more flight tests in fairly quick succession. SpaceX is already nearing completion of its second Super Heavy booster and has additional Starships ready to go as well. The company should, in this way, benefit from its strategy of being “hardware rich.”

A view of NASA's SLS rocket, nearly fully assembled, in September 2021.
Enlarge / A view of NASA’s SLS rocket, nearly fully assembled, in September 2021.

NASA

Space Launch System

Capacity to LEO: 95 tons

Current official launch date: March-April 2022

Our previous estimated launch date: Q2 2021

Our current estimated launch date: Summer 2022

Confidence: Medium

NASA recently slipped its launch target for the SLS rocket from February 2022 to March or April. This delay came after the “controller,” or flight computer, on one of the four main engines that power the rocket stopped communicating on November 22. The controller now must be replaced. Prior to this issue, the schedule had called for a rollout of the rocket to the launch pad at the end of December, and now that will not happen.

After rollout, the rocket will undergo a wet dress rehearsal. This procedure, too, is unlikely to occur without issues, as NASA and its contractors will be dealing with the completed rocket for the first time. This is the point in rocket development when at least minor problems are discovered. Following the launch pad fueling test, the rocket will be rolled back into the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center for the attachment of pyrotechnics.

All of this suggests the launch of the SLS rocket will probably not occur before April. The launch may well slip further pending the outcome of the wet dress rehearsal test.



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