Elon Musk’s upcoming Starship presentation to mark 12 months of rapid progress

by Michael Baylor

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is set to provide a highly anticipated update on the company’s Starship program on September 28th from Boca Chica, Texas. The presentation is expected to take place in front of the first nearly completed Starship prototype – capping off 12 months of rapid progress which has seen the program transition from fancy renders to reality.

Over the past few years, Musk has been conducting annual presentations on the status of SpaceX’s next-generation vehicles designed to colonize the Moon and Mars.

While the names of the vehicles have changed numerous times over the years, the spacecraft is currently called Starship with its first stage booster called Super Heavy.

The system is designed to be fully reusable – with both Super Heavy and Starship capable of landing propulsively.

During last year’s presentation, Musk announced that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa had purchased a flight to send Maezawa and several artists around the Moon. While the news caught the attention of many, the launch vehicle was still in the very early phases of development.

A prototype carbon fiber tank barrel and a few sub-scale Raptor engines were all that SpaceX had to show for physical hardware.

Furthermore, at SpaceX’s launch site in Boca Chica, there was not much more than a mound of dirt. And, the state of affairs were similar at a planned Starship factory at the Port of Los Angeles.

While the concept was exciting, the launch system was far from flight-ready.

Fast forward 12 months and the state of Starship development is radically different.

In Boca Chica, the mound of dirt has been transformed into an operational launch site – outfitted with the ground support equipment needed to support test flights of the methane-fueled Starship vehicles.

Two untethered flights of a test vehicle called Starhopper have already occurred at the pad – the most recent to an altitude of 150 meters.

Additionally, at the nearby operations center, the first full-scale Starship vehicle is nearing completion and is expected to be the backdrop of the upcoming presentation.

And if that was not enough, a second Starship prototype is also nearing completion near Cape Canaveral, Florida. That vehicle will be launched from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center which is already undergoing renovations to prepare for the upcoming Starship flights.

As for the factory at the Port of Los Angeles, it was scrapped just weeks after Musk’s 2018 presentation. The cancellation was made after a radical change of plans which saw the Starship and Super Heavy designs pivot from carbon fiber to steel.

The switch was made to reduce the technical complexity of the project and removed the need for a factory with advanced machinery. 

Consequently, SpaceX is now assembling the vehicles near their launch site, as transporting a nine-meter diameter rocket for thousands of miles is less than ideal.

The move away from carbon fiber quickly paid dividends. Steel is an easier material to work with, and thus within weeks the first prototype vehicle was being assembled in Boca Chica.

The flurry of activity was a dramatic change for the local community. For years, the Boca Chica facility had sat idle as plans to launch SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets from the site never materialized.

However, in the final weeks of 2018, a nine-meter diameter steel structure began to rise in South Texas. It was the beginnings of Starhopper, a Starship test-bed designed to perform small hops using a full-scale Raptor engine.

Starhopper under construction in Boca Chica, Texas in late 2018 via Nomadd for NSF L2

By March of 2019, the vehicle was ready for action. Over the course of the following months, it performed numerous tests including three static fires and two flight tests. The flight tests saw the vehicle hop to 18 meters in altitude on July 25th. This was followed by a flight to 150 meters on August 27th.

The 150 meter hop was the final flight of Starhopper. It is now set to be converted into a vertical Raptor test stand – with the flight test campaign transitioning to a full-scale Starship prototype.

Named Starship Mk1, the new prototype is expected to perform flights to much greater altitudes – with a launch to around 20 kilometers expected in the coming weeks.

To do so, the vehicle will be far more advanced than the single-engine Starhopper. Not only will it be substantially taller, but Mk1 will also be outfitted with landing gear, control surfaces, and three Raptor engines.

A fin is installed on the Starship Mk1 prototype via BocaChicaGal for NSF

SpaceX teams have been racing around the clock to prepare the Mk1 vehicle for the presentation on September 28th – with the goal of having the vehicle’s primary structure fully assembled in time for the event.

During the presentation, Musk is expected to outline the current state of the program, including the methane-powered Raptor engines, launch site developments, and changes to Starship’s design since the last presentation.

Like all previous years, this year’s update will once again feature a change in the aero surfaces of the vehicle – used to help the spacecraft navigate in the atmosphere before landing.

However, the latest evolution of the design is expected to be much more mature than previous years – with SpaceX allocating far greater resources to the program over the past 12 months.

Slight tweaks to the Super Heavy booster – the first stage which will be used to launch Starship into orbit from Earth – are also expected to be announced at next weekend’s presentation.

The number of Raptor engines on Super Heavy will be one particular area of interest, as that has changed several times over the course of development. 

Renders and potentially an animation of Starship and Super Heavy launching from Boca Chica and Pad 39A are also heavily anticipated. 

The plans for the launch pads have only materialized over the past few months, with many of the details found in environmental documents already outdated.

What is known is that modifications are well underway to prepare the Boca Chica and Kennedy Space Center-based pads for their respective Starship activities.

In Boca Chica, Texas, construction is ongoing to transition the launch pad from Starhopper to Starship flights.

Since Starship is substantially bigger than the Starhopper, the vehicle will require additional propellant. Thus, teams have been working to increase the propellant storage capacity at the launch site.

Most notably, a large liquid oxygen tank was moved from a nearby storage site to the launch pad on Thursday. 

The Boca Chica launch site is also expected to see the addition of a launch mount for Starship. Unlike Starhopper which lifted off directly from the concrete pad, the Mk1 prototype will be elevated slightly by a steel structure.

Similar activities are underway at Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida as that launch site also prepares for Starship flights.

Pad 39A will soon be used for flights of the Starship Mk2 prototype. The Florida-based Mk2 vehicle is nearly identical to the Texas-based Mk1 prototype and will also be used for high altitude test flights.

A render of what Starship Mk2 may look like on the pad via Jay DeShetler for NSF L2

The Mk2 prototype will be launched from a new launch mount which is similar to the one being prepared for installation at Boca Chica.

It is understood that the mount for Pad 39A has been undergoing construction in the Horizontal Integration Facility (HIF) at the launch site. The HIF is normally used to store Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

SpaceX officially broke ground on the foundational work for the launch mount on Thursday evening. The following morning, bulldozers and other heavy machinery were spotted at the pad.

This work is expected to only take a couple of weeks – with the launch mount installation occurring shortly after.

However, it will take slightly longer for the required ground support equipment to be in place and ready to support a launch.

Unlike Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy which use kerosene as the fuel, Starship uses methane. Thus, SpaceX will have to install additional fuel tanks in order to make Pad 39A Starship compatible.

If all goes well, the Boca Chica and 39A Starship pads will then eventually be converted to support a full Starship stack including the Super Heavy first stage booster. The addition of the first stage will allow for flights into orbit.

How and when this will occur will be a subject of interest at next weekend’s presentation.

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