A recent Space.com article says:

We should see the (Space-X Starship) Mk1 in action soon. SpaceX aims to fly the vehicle to an altitude of about 12 miles (20 kilometers) in October, then attempt an orbital test flight shortly thereafter, Musk has said.

Things should continue to move quickly if these flights go well. SpaceX representatives have said that the first operational Starship-Super Heavy flight could occur as early as 2021.

This make it sounds like a Super Heavy won't be part of that first orbital test flight of Starship.

Are there (reputable) sources that discuss whether Starship is capable of single stage to orbit? And return?

If so, can it carry anything other than itself? I.e. does it have a useful payload, even small?

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    $\begingroup$ Based on Musk's comments, I think BOTH components are SSTO, though though with virtually no payload and with no fuel to deorbit and land. $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2019 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisB.Behrens does the 'no fuel to deorbit and land' part of your comment mean that the orbital test flight referenced in the question will expend a Starship? $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2019 at 15:19
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    $\begingroup$ I doubt that would make operational sense - there may be some other booster situation they have in mind. If they CAN do a full SSTO with a deorbit and landing, that would be something new from the numbers I've seen. $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2019 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ Possibly relevant: space.stackexchange.com/questions/25707/… $\endgroup$ Sep 25, 2019 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ There's a vote to close as "primarily opinion based" and I disagree with the idea that the question needs to be closed. However, it might be a good idea to fine-tune the question by asking if the current design is capable of SSTO based on currently available information on masses and engines, or if there has been any discussion of this in somewhat reputable venues. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Sep 25, 2019 at 23:39

2 Answers 2


No, not from Earth.

According to Elon Musk's most recent comments at SpaceX's 2019 Starship Update presentation, Starship cannot reach orbit without the Super Heavy first stage booster, at least on Earth. (Though when launching from the moon or Mars it's no problem.)

Previously in 2018 Musk had stated on Twitter that Starship would be technically capable of SSTO, but only with no payload (making it entirely pointless to try to use Starship that way). Later in May 2019 he reiterated that Starship could do SSTO, but only with the heat shield, landing propellant, and legs stripped off. (Meaning no way to get back to Earth after launch.)

With these older comments in mind, it's not entirely clear whether Musk's most recent statement at the Starship Update Presentation means the latest Starship design can't support SSTO at all (even in a hypothetical expendable configuration with no useful payload) or if he was only referring to SSTO with a useful payload, particularly since the question he was responding to included that qualifier. In either case, the distinction between "unable to do SSTO" and "unable to do SSTO with a non-zero payload" is mostly academic, since in normal operation Starship won't ever be launching from Earth without Super Heavy.

As for the Space.com article, I can see how that wording might be confusing, but I don't believe they're actually trying to suggest that Starship will be doing orbital tests without Super Heavy. Rather, "the first operational Starship-Super Heavy flight" refers to the first flight that will actually be carrying useful payloads to orbit; it doesn't count the test articles and prototypes they're using for development.

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    $\begingroup$ " (making it entirely pointless to try to use Starship that way)." - not necessarily. Wet Workshop, or orbital fuel tank could be possible uses for such a craft. In particular, instead of "launch the Mars starship, then 6 refueling missions in quick succession, and hope all of them go well, while crew to Mars waits in orbit till they have departure fuel", one could launch the SSTO starship, fuel it full in orbit through 6 refuel launches (reusable), and if everything goes well, launch the Mars starship, fuel it full from the orbital tank, and depart. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Apr 24, 2023 at 10:49

Starship minus Super Heavy cannot reach orbit, but with extra Raptors fitted, it should be able to achieve hops of up to 10,000 km (distance between points, not distance straight up)



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