SpaceX appears to have gone a long time without launching – or detonating – a rocket at its South Texas launch site. Just over two months have passed since the company launched its prototype SN15 spacecraft at an altitude of 10 km before safely landing the vehicle on May 5.
SpaceX’s engineering team apparently got the data they needed from this test flight, as the company abandoned plans to pilot its next prototype (the SN16) in favor of higher flights. As a result, activity at the so-called “Starbase” facility near Boca Chica, Texas focused on building capacity for an attempted orbital launch of the Starship system.
Over the past two months, SpaceX has built a massive launch tower to support a full stack of the Super Heavy booster and the spacecraft’s upper stage. The company has also built several new large tanks as part of the ground support equipment that supplies the huge vehicles with liquid oxygen and methane.
Starbase production diagram – July 13, 2021 pic.twitter.com/1H5Bf3Gqdm
– Brendan (@_brendan_lewis) July 13, 2021
Finally, SpaceX technicians and engineers assembled the Super Heavy boosters themselves, and the company launched “Booster 3” on the launch pad in early July. This is the first full-scale booster prototype to undergo testing, and it has passed cryogenic pressure testing of its fuel tanks.
This week, the company added three Raptor rocket motors to Booster 3 and told residents in the area that it could perform a static fire test of the vehicle as early as Thursday, July 15. The road closure schedule indicates a potential test window from 12:00 p.m. local time to 10:00 p.m. (5:00 p.m. UTC Thursday to 3:00 a.m. UTC Friday).
SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said that Booster 3 will not be launched, but if all goes well with its ground tests, the company will proceed with the launch of Booster 4. This rocket is already under construction in the the company’s assembly plant a few kilometers from the launch. site in South Texas. While SpaceX tests Booster 3 with three Raptor engines, a fully orbital version of Super Heavy will have 33 of the Raptors fueled by methane.
At the same time, SpaceX built the “Ship 20”. (SpaceX ditched the SN nomenclature for the Starship prototypes and now calls them “Ships.”) This is the first in a new generation of Starship prototypes with features that will allow them to climb into space and then go. come back to Earth. Much of the Ship 20 rocket has already been completed at a high-rise facility in Boca Chica, Texas.
All of this work – on rockets, tower, and ground systems – is in preparation for the Super Heavy and Starship test launch later this summer. SpaceX wants to perform this test flight – which will see the Starship vehicle make most of the circle around the Earth before making a controlled re-entry into the ocean north of Kauai – as early as August.
However, regulatory hurdles remain. In addition to all the technical work and tests to be done, SpaceX has yet to obtain launch clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is examining the environmental condition of the launch facility in South Texas. The FAA said that as of May, it had yet to decide whether to allow SpaceX to launch Starship orbital missions from south Texas.
List image by Elon Musk