Amid Starship milestones, Booster 7 set to return for pre-launch testing

by Chris Bergin

SpaceX’s Starship program continues to march through a fluid set of milestones, ranging from a new record number of Raptor engines firing simultaneously, to the anticipated presence of a vehicle on the Starship pad at Florida’s historic LC-39A by the second quarter of 2023.

Booster 7 achieved the seven-engine static fire test milestone before rolling back to the Production Site for “robustness upgrades.” It is set to return for its pre-launch flow this coming week.

SpaceX chief engineer Elon Musk also confirmed Starbase would produce the initial vehicles for its KSC launch site, shipped to Florida by barge from Texas, as an interim measure before production comes online at the company’s under-construction Roberts Road facility.

Starship at Starbase

Booster 7 and Ship 24 continue to be cited as the pairing that will conduct the orbital test flight, with Musk citing the latest schedule as “late next month (October) maybe, but November seems highly likely.”

Schedule clarity will be gained via the upcoming return to Booster 7 from its time back in the Mega Bay (High Bay 2) after it was transported away from its perch on the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) in the middle of September.

That rollback came after achieving new milestones, not least the most amount of Raptors ever to be fired at the same time. The seven-engine firing was deemed a success by Musk, with rollback to allow for “robustness upgrades ahead of flight”.

With road closures posted for the upcoming week, work on Booster 7 in the Mega Bay is likely coming to a close over the weekend, which in turn keeps to the schedule Musk noted for a potential November flight.

Another factor in play has been the large amount of work conducted on the OLM, which has seen large numbers of SpaceX personnel working day and night on Stage Zero. The work also included a visually impressive deluge test on the Mount.

It’s currently yet to be seen if Booster 7 and Ship 24 will complete a full-stack mating once the vehicles are reunited at the Orbital Launch Site before the next Static Fire milestone.

However, Ship 24 was moved into position on Friday, rolling to the Tower at the OLS, in readiness for Booster 7’s return and the preparations for full-stack.

Ship 24 has been a Pad B resident at the suborbital launch site for some time, including a week attached to the LR11000 crane, supporting the vehicle while undergoing internal work. A large amount of focus has been on the payload bay door, which – on future vehicles at least – will deploy Starlink V2 satellites.

One surprising element of the previous week has been the lack of attention paid to Booster 8. This vehicle was rolled to the launch site during Booster 7’s upgrades. However, it hasn’t undergone any notable work, such as cryoproofing.

This may be in part related to a potential refocus on Booster 9 being the vehicle to follow up on Booster 7’s flight.

Booster 9 has already begun stacking at the production site and has been confirmed as sporting a number of upgrades, per Musk – who has now made several references to Booster 7’s test flight and the upgrades that will fly with Booster 9.

“Our focus is on reliability upgrades for flight on Booster 7 and completing Booster 9, which has many design changes, especially for full engine RUD isolation,” Musk noted in a tweet.

That RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly) isolation has already been seen installed on some of the Raptors at SpaceX’s test site in McGregor.

Booster 7 is likely to include some form of shielding, installed during the upgrades inside the Mega Bay.

“That’s the plan (Booster 7 first to fly). We’re taking a little risk there, as engine isolation was done as retrofit, so not as good as on Booster 9,” Musk added.

The prospect is that Booster 9 will become the set design for the vehicle for the interim future, allowing for the template to be used in an increased production cadence that Starbase can cater to, thanks to recent build site expansion over the last 12 months.

“We will have two boosters & ships ready for orbital flight by then, with full-stack production at roughly one every two months,” added Musk.

Starbase production allows for multiple processing flows in parallel thanks to its two large High Bays, a Mid Bay, and the production tents that are currently being replaced by a large “Starfactory” building.

Starship at the Cape

An even larger facility is being built at Roberts Road at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC). However, while construction work has shown an impressive pace, the initial Starships to fly out of Florida will be shipped from South Texas.

This path toward the first Starship on KSC 39A’s Starship launch site will be the initial Florida foray into Musk’s long-term ambition of a fully – and rapidly – reusable launch vehicle, with NASA and SpaceX currently undertaking an environmental study that would allow SpaceX to build two launch towers at LC-49.

With Starbase tagged as its test and development site, with around eight launches per year at its maximum cadence, launches from the Cape will conduct the majority of missions, including the flagship HLS (Human Landing System) flights to return humans to the Moon.

Render of LC-49 in the distance behind LC-39. (Credit: Jay DeShelter for NSF/L2)

The tower for Starship at 39A has been stacked, although a lot of additional work is required before it can host the first Booster for fit checks. This includes the transportation and installation of the OLM and the chopsticks for the Mechazilla system similar to the one seen at Starbase.

SpaceX McGregor

While Starbase test events may have been lacking over the last few weeks, the testing of Raptor 2 engines at SpaceX’s engine test site in McGregor has seen its usual hive of activity.

Wide photo of the McGregor site. (Credit: Gary Blair for NSF/L2)

Utilizing the test center’s five Raptor test bays, McGregor is tasked with certifying engines ahead of their shipment to Starbase.

The engines arrive from SpaceX’s main factory in Hawthorne, although a Raptor production facility has since been built at the test site. It’s not yet confirmed if Raptor engines have been built inside the new factory, or if it is still being outfitted.

Another major milestone for the Raptor engine was observed over the past week when the Tripod Stand hosted a test that included a relight firing.

The Raptor in question fired for just over 30 seconds before shutting down. However, just nine seconds later, the same engine fired up for another burn of around four seconds.

Photos from Nic Ansuini (@NicAnsuini) and Gary Blair.

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