SpaceX’s Starbase is heading into its latest phase of milestones for Starship, with the high likelihood the FAA is close to approving a critical checkpoint for its rapidly reusable launch vehicle, paving the way for the orbital launch attempt of Booster 7 with Ship 24.
Both the Booster and the Ship are progressing towards Static Fire attempts this month, with Ship 24 passing cryogenic proof testing before heading back to the Production Site for its Raptors, and Booster 7 set to return to the launch site with all 33 of its Raptor 2s.
Ship 24 is currently without engines, allowing proof testing to clear the path toward a Static Fire attempt.
The latest test occurred this week, with S24 moved to Pad A to be placed on the mount with the Thrust Rams, which simulate thrust loads on the aft of the vehicle.
Pad A has been outfitted with six thrust rams, which will connect to the six Raptor engine mounts. When the vehicle is pressurized and loaded with liquid nitrogen, these will push on the engine mounts, simulating the thrust of six Raptor engines firing.
Ship 24 arrived at the launch site on May 26 and made its way to the launch site’s ship Cryo Station. It underwent pneumatic proof testing using relatively warm nitrogen gas to ensure it had no leaks.
During the test, several heat shield tiles liberated, likely as a result of an issue internal to the vehicle. Workers were later seen removing a bent pipe from the vehicle, potentially the cause of an erroneous vent that resulted in numerous tiles shedding.
No additional, or at least noticeable, TPS (Thermal Protection System) losses have been noted during the latest round of testing, which resulted in two cryo load test events prior to Ship 24 being removed from Pad A for the rollback to the Production site.
There it will receive its three sea level and three RVac Raptor engines prior to returning to the launch site for Static Fire tests.
Booster 7 meanwhile is currently residing in High Bay 2 (nicknamed “The Mega Bay”) and is presently undergoing the installation of its final Raptor 2 engines – as confirmed by SpaceX Chief Designer Elon Musk . “All Raptor 2 engines needed for first orbital flight are complete & being installed.”
Booster 7 completed pneumatic and cryogenic tank testing in April on a new structural test stand.
During this testing, the methane transfer tube inside Booster 7 was damaged, resulting in the vehicle being rolled back to the production site for repairs. Workers seemingly rebuilt the transfer tube inside the vehicle before once again rolling to the Orbital Launch Site on May 6.
Booster 7 was lifted onto the Orbital Launch Mount the same day, and additional cryogenic tanking tests were completed on May 9 and 11.
The vehicle was rolled back to the production site on May 14, with an expected return to the launch site – this time sporting Raptor engines – expected in the coming days. This will mark Booster 7’s preparations for a Static Fire campaign.
Elon noted that SpaceX intends to fire “one at a time,” which may mean they plan to fire the engines in one ring at a time rather than literally one engine at a time. Super Heavy boosters feature 33 Raptor engines arranged in three rings. SpaceX may start with the inner three engines before testing the middle 10 and then the outer 20.
Such testing may be conducted in parallel with the FAA’s approval per its Environmental Report. The FAA intends to issue the Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) on June 13.
While some claim FAA is the hold up for Starship plans, even if the FAA had approved a launch in December of last year, SpaceX likely still would not have been ready for an orbital launch.
It was initially expected that Ship 20 and Booster 4 would make the debut orbital flight, and both vehicles made it through significant testing. However, SpaceX’s mind was changed, or something broke, because Booster 4 never performed even a single static fire test – even though it had all engines properly installed. It still resides out at the launch site, as a retired booster.
Regardless, the ground support infrastructure was not – and still is not – complete for an orbital flight.
SpaceX installed new methane tanks to replace the flawed Starship-derived ones. Those new tanks have only recently begun to be filled, meaning they were only recently certified. So even if everything else has been ready, there would have been no way to get methane into the full Starship stack.
And even today, the new set of vehicles are still not ready for flight.
SpaceX must also work towards gaining a launch license for the orbital test flight.
Interestingly, the test flight is expected to carry a batch of Starlink V2 satellites, with Ship 24 being the first vehicle to have a payload slot for its “Pez dispenser.”
Starlink launches will be the initial payload of choice for Starship, as it gains flight experience ahead of carrying other payloads and eventually – much later – evolving into a crew launch vehicle.
A sizeable box-like structure has been assembled at the site as well. It appears to have a short but wide door at the bottom, similar to the Starlink deployer door on Ship 24. It is possible that this could be a structure to load Starlink 2.0 satellites onto future ships.
But preparations for the Static Fire campaign, eventual stacking of Ship 24 atop Booster 7, and the path to launch also include continuous work on “Stage Zero,” which Musk has often mentioned is more complex than the actual vehicles.
The propellant loading systems at the orbital site are mostly complete, with SpaceX performing a cryogenic proof test of a full-stack back in March. In addition, there have been numerous propellant deliveries to the orbital tank farm, including many liquid methane trucks. This points to the system being placed in a readiness state.
The orbital launch mount itself is still undergoing some work. Crews have been working on the booster quick-disconnect (QD), including installing a second cover on the umbilical to protect its propellant lines during launch. It was later removed, pointing to it being a fit check.
A water deluge test was performed at the orbital site in late April. This system will help protect the pad and surrounding infrastructure from the extreme sounds of launch and engine testing.
On the launch tower, work is still ongoing on the quick-disconnect arm, which had a large amount of hardware, including the claws or stabilizer arms, removed earlier this year after full-stack testing. A new ship umbilical has been installed, but the claws that wrap around the top of a booster to stabilize it have yet to reappear.
Over at the Production Site, increased production cadence is being staged, with the start of construction on “Starfactory.”
The new factory is making quick progress, as metal sheeting is going up on the walls. Musk also shared a render of what this factory will eventually look like, as it replaces the production tents that currently reside near the High Bays.
Now also taking up residence in the Mega Bay, Booster 8 is nearing the end of stacking and is currently in two pieces. Its methane tank is inside the Mid Bay, while its LOX (Liquid oxygen) tank, mounted to the engine section, was moved from the High Bay. Assembly of the vehicle should be complete within the coming weeks.
Also, Ship 25 has now begun assembly inside the High Bay, specific to the common dome and LOX section. Tankage was then rolled out of the High Bay on Thursday pointing to active work on this next Ship. Parts of Ship 26 are also being staged around the production site. Parts of Boosters 9 and 10 have been seen as well.
In addition, a mysterious section labeled “EDOME” was spotted. This test was rolled out to the launch site on Wednesday.
This is likely to be a test tank used to validate the new flatter domes that have been spotted around the site. These flatter domes, which are made of only one kind of stamped panel, would simplify production and allow the propellant tanks to have a larger volume.
Preparations for Starship on the East Coast are continuing to build up, both at the Roberts Road and LC-39A sites.
*Hundreds of Hi Res photos from each flyover can be accessed and downloaded by members in L2*
Five Launch Tower sections have been constructed at Roberts Road, with segments 1 and 3 having more hardware installed in their floors, such as handrails on the outer perimeter and in the elevator shaft. The elevator shaft is also getting a grating that acts as a safety barrier door.
These two segments are labeled as levels 1 and 5, which are the tower levels directly above the concrete base and the level for the Quick Disconnect arm, respectively. Level 5 is also gaining the initial hardware needed to support the QD arm.
Since the segments were assembled in a different order than they will exist on the tower itself, segments 1, 2, 4, and 5 correspond to tower levels 1, 2, 3, and 4, respectively.
These segments can be seen with a raceway installed on the corner opposite from the side of the tower the launch mount will be on. This raceway will eventually get outfitted with the wires, conduits, and other GSE (Ground Support Equipment) to be used for all the power and fluids needed for the tower to support its own Mechazilla system.
The foundations for High Bay 3 (HB3), or the Cape Mega Bay, have been seen with concrete poured over the rebar. Cross bracing for HB3 is stored by the GSE pipe production area to the north. These cross braces will go in between the primary steel columns and beams for added structural reinforcement – then all of that will get covered by the panels that form the external facade of the building.
Next door from there, the foundation work for the starship factory is progressing, with the pile driller doing more work near Roberts Road itself.
Elon recently shared a render of how the Roberts Road complex will look once all significant work is done, and this cosmetic work can be seen on that same corner of the Hangar X building.
It also shows the opening for vehicles to enter and exit High Bay 3 will be on the north side, and the Starfactory will feature two different roof heights, likely to accommodate nose cone and payload bay stacking.
However, these plans appear to be somewhat fluid from a final design standpoint, with NSF’s Harry Stranger spotting updated schematics of the Roberts Road factory plan, which could actually include two High Bays.
SpaceX has submitted updated plans for the Roberts Road Starship production area.
The main factory is now a total of 648,000sqft, that's 136,000sqft larger than in previous plans.
This is also confirmation that there will be two highbays, each 32,136sqft. pic.twitter.com/cEXSwuEVOA
— Harry Stranger (@Harry__Stranger) June 8, 2022
At SpaceX’s Launch Complex 39A, where the Starships built at Roberts Road will launch, all the legs for the Starship launch mount are finally in place.
Also observed is the base for the giant crane that will help build the infrastructure for launching and landing Starship rockets at LC-39A.
It remains to be seen what type of crane will be used, but potentially it could be an LR 11350, the same type of crane used for tower assembly in Starbase Boca Chica.
Given the arrival of the crane at 39A and the state of the launch tower segments at Roberts Road, the rollout of the segments to 39A and stacking on the concrete base could be very soon.
The remaining concrete pours needed to complete it has occurred, with more work also ongoing on the future location of the draw works for the Mechazilla system. Once the concrete cures, the first launch tower segment will be stacked on top of it.
Wood cribbing or crane mats is being stored by the two tents south of the launch mount. These will be used as a surface for moving and distributing the weight of the massive crane being assembled there.
Nearby, several supports for GSE lines are also visible to the north of the launch tower and over at the former Starship landing site by the two tents.
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