Preparations are taking place at Starbase for the upcoming second Starship test flight, with Booster 9 expected to return to the launch site in the coming days following the installation of its hot staging ring. Future vehicles are also being prepared for flight. At the same time, long-term aspirations are being worked on, with an old, scrapped ship reappearing, now repurposed as the newest test article for NASA’s Human Landing System.
Booster 9 was rolled back to the production site on the evening of Aug. 7, following Ship 25’s rollback to the “rocket garden” in the late evening of Aug. 4 and early morning of Aug. 5. Since then, both vehicles have remained at the production site to prepare them for additional on-pad testing followed by the second launch of the full Starship system.
Booster 9 is set to return to the launch site in the coming days, with the installation of its hot staging ring now complete.
Booster 9 has her crown and is ready to roll in the coming days.
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) August 18, 2023
Long road closures have been posted for next week, pointing to the likelihood SpaceX will conduct a second set of Spin Prime and Static Fire tests.
Should those tests go to plan, Ship 25 will then return for stacking atop Booster 9, which will allow for fit checks with the Ship Quick Disconnect (SQD), which is now higher on the tower to cater for the extra height of the installed hot staging ring.
This ring will enable the ship to separate from the booster in-flight after igniting some of its Raptors while the booster is still burning three low-throttled engines. This system will replace an earlier, more complicated separation sequence.
A full stack cryo will follow, and then all eyes will be on the FAA for their green light to resume launch operations, based on their findings relating to the maiden flight of Starship.
Ship 25 is currently located in the rocket garden, having tiles added to its mounting points – which will bring the vehicle into its flight configuration.
Meanwhile, Ship 28 is at the engine installation stand nearby to have its Raptor engines installed. Ships currently use three Raptor sea-level and three Raptor Vacuum engines with larger nozzles. This preparation suggests that Ship 28 may be the next ship to fly after Ship 25, although nothing is set in stone.
— Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer) August 18, 2023
Additional preparations for future flights have also been made at the former Masseys gun range-turned-test site. Structural testing on a hot staging ring test article has been performed to see how it holds up under flight stresses, with the assistance of weighted ropes that were tensioned by the test structure.
The test site has proven to be a key element in SpaceX’s goal of finding efficiencies in its test flow, with Booster 10 having conducted a full cryo test at the site before it then rolled back to the production site and has since re-entered the Mega Bay for its engine installations to take place.
The Ship 26.1 article, also at Masseys, has been moved to the same area where earlier flight termination system tests took place. This does not mean these kinds of tests would necessarily be done on Ship 26.1, but it remains to be seen what will be done with that test article. A pressure test to failure is a possibility.
Work has continued apace at the OLM, with a new door being installed to replace one that was blown off during the first integrated Starship launch on April 20 of this year. Additional shielding has also been added to the OLM’s legs to help protect them during future Starship launches.
— Chris Bergin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) August 16, 2023
The booster quick disconnect (QD) fitting is also being tested after some work was performed on it. This testing is best done with a booster off of the OLM, as the QD is attached to the booster prior to launch. Venting has been seen from the QD fitting during testing; this would be expected since the fitting is used to transfer propellants and other commodities to the booster.
A third water deluge tank has also been installed next to the OLM. This new deluge tank, which may be the last one to be added, offers additional capacity to the new system. It is not known yet whether this new capacity will enable additional launch attempts the same day after an abort.
Meanwhile, at the production site, five levels have been added to the new Megabay that has been under construction since May. No other pieces have been seen prefabricated at the Sanchez site that would indicate any additional full levels remain; however, the building still needs its roof. The LR11000 crane that had built up the new structure has now been lowered to be worked on.
While the new Megabay is still under construction, a new ring-like structure has been seen at the Sanchez site. It is not currently known what this structure is for. It bears some resemblance to the OLM ring, but this newer ring is made of much thinner steel. As the new structure is being built, other areas are also active. For example, Ship 29 has been moved around in the High Bay recently, while Ship 30 is also under construction there.
A hint at the program’s future plans for work on the HLS, or Human Landing System project, has come to light. Ship 22 was built during testing of the Booster 4/Ship 20 combination and was rolled out of the High Bay – almost fully completed – in February 2022. It was later broken up and scrapped to prioritize Ship 24, which boasted many upgrades. However, the nose section of Ship 22 has been moved to a spot in Boca Chica Village recently.
A placard marking the Ship 22 nose as an HLS article was spotted, as well as a human-sized door at the bottom of the nosecone. Together, this would seem to indicate that the nose is being turned into a mockup, possibly with a representative interior, for the HLS program intended to land the Artemis III and IV astronauts onto the Moon’s surface.
Much work remains to be done before the HLS program is ready to fly astronauts to the lunar surface. The Ship 22 nose mockup hints that work on the program is entering a more advanced stage, while the orbital refilling process and many other aspects of Starship human lunar landings still need to be demonstrated.
The next immediate step necessary for HLS test flights – or any other Starship missions for that matter – is the second test flight of the full Starship system.
Road closures – each from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM CDT and only meant for vehicle testing – have now been issued, with the primary closure being on Monday, Aug. 21 along with backup closures on Tuesday, Aug. 22 and Wednesday, Aug. 23. In addition, the US Coast Guard has now issued a hazard zone for launch activities on Aug. 31.
While the road closures and hazard zone are positive signs for a launch in the near future, FAA approval for Starship’s return to flight still needs to be granted.
(Lead image: Booster 9 with its hot staging ring installed. Via Jack Beyer for NSF/L2)
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