The Starship Program had its biggest year to date in 2023, with two full stack flights, massive changes to the launch pad and surrounding systems, extending testing at Masseys, and massive changes to the production site.
At the start of 2023, the Production Site still included the Windbreak, Midbay, and Tent 1 and 2. Additionally, the production site still hadn’t been fully connected to the primary power grid. Throughout 2023, many changes occurred that will help SpaceX optimize Starship production and maintenance going forward.
This year SpaceX began building the second Mega Bay (Ship Bay) to increase its capability for stacking vehicles. By now, it is nearly certain that this new bay will replace High Bay in terms of ship construction. The layout will look like what Mega Bay 1 (Booster Bay) now looks like.
Both Mega Bays will feature one turntable in the front corner, which will be used to stack vehicles by rotating the stack along a robotic welder inside the bay. Then, on the back side of the bays, there are three work platforms that will allow SpaceX to install engines more easily and do separate work on boosters and ships. Ship 29 is the first ship to use the new Ship Bay for engine installation and internal work.
SpaceX also upgraded the bridge cranes inside Mega Bay 1 so they could lift a booster without engines with only one crane instead of two, which they used to have to do. However, once fully fitted with engines and shielding, lifting a booster requires both cranes.
With Starfactory, SpaceX made great progress with the Windbreak, Midbay, and Tent 1 and 2 demolition. By the time crews are completely finished working in the area, the factory will be around 800,000 square feet since Tent 3 still needs to be demolished.
Currently, only some of the layout of Starfactory is known, such as the back northeast corner having a press pit, which is for a hydraulic press to stamp and crate parts. The higher section closest to Highway 4 will be used for nosecone construction. In fact, there is already a nosecone welding jig inside the factory.
Once Starfactory kicks into full gear along with both the Booster Bay and Ship Bay, SpaceX’s production of ships and boosters will substantially increase. This will allow for more testing and flights so SpaceX can fulfill its biggest contract for Starship, which is the Human Landing System for NASA’s Artemis Moon program.
Over this past year, the Sanchez site has undergone many changes. At the start of the year, Sanchez still had the propellant production plant and was missing many things now located there. During the course of the year, SpaceX used Sanchez to prefabricate the sections of the new High Bay and then move them to the new bay for the LR-11000 crane to be placed into position.
Since the Starfactory expansion required the removal of the Ground Support Equipment (GSE) building, SpaceX relocated it to the western corner of Sanchez and upgraded it with insulation in the process. With insulation and air conditioning, better work and welding environments were created in the building. Alongside the GSE building, construction started on two new white rings and two new black rings.
These white rings were the work stands for both the Booster Bay (Mega Bay 1) and the new Ship Bay (New High Bay). The black rings were a new transport stand for boosters which are automated compared to the old transport stands.
Another significant addition to Sanchez this year was the ship engine install stand near the Rocket Garden which greatly simplified the installation of engines on ships. However, this stand may be scrapped since the Ship Bay will take over its functions.
SpaceX is now preparing Sanchez to receive all of the completed tower sections at Roberts Road. These will be for the second Launch Pad at Starbase, and as of right now, it is unclear when construction will start.
Lastly, the Propellant Production Plant at Sanchez has been dismantled. It is unknown if SpaceX is giving up and producing its propellant or if it intends to do it at another location.
This year, SpaceX performed the first ship cryo-proof test with Ship 25 and later started doing boosters, starting with Booster 10. SpaceX has built two mobile thrust ram stands, one for ship and one for booster. These can transport a ship or booster from the Shipyard to Masseys, perform the necessary cryo and structural load tests, and then transport them back.
Recently, tons of groundwork has occurred at Masseys, and SpaceX has even added subcoolers. As of now, it is unknown exactly what will be built there. Currently, Booster 12 is at Masseys for cryo testing, with this booster likely slated for Flight 5.
The Launch Site has changed significantly over the course of 2023, especially with two orbital test flights having been launched from Orbital Pad A at Starbase. Just before the first flight, SpaceX completed the installation of the final pieces of shielding on the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM). This was one of the final pieces of OLM construction needed before the first flight.
After the first flight, there was significant damage to the base of the pad, which required a complete redesign of the pad’s foundation and the installation of a new water-cooled steel plate flame deflector.
This beefed up the foundation to be around 4.5 meters of concrete and steel and pilings going down at least 20 meters, compared to the measly 1 meter or so of just fondag concrete used for Flight 1. The other big addition was the new water flame deflector, which is a steel plate with many small holes used to spray water against the exhaust plume of the booster in order to protect the ground and reduce shock to ground equipment.
This system proved its worth during Flight 2 when the damage to the pad was minimal. The turnaround between Flight 1 and Booster 9 being mounted to the OLM was three months compared to Flight 2 and Booster 10, which was just one month.
SpaceX has also upgraded the Orbital Tank Farm with spots for nine more horizontal tanks. The company also finally added two new pumps and four subcoolers on the liquid oxygen side and one pump and one subcooler on the methane side. There have been spots for this expansion ever since they originally built the tank farm. Once all are fully hooked up and integrated, SpaceX will be able to tank and de-tank ships and boosters much faster.
Near the end of the year, Suborbital Pad A was demolished. SpaceX hasn’t used this pad for a while, and it is unclear what SpaceX will use the space for in the future.
Flights and testing
SpaceX had a very eventful year with testing at Starbase, with two full-stack flight tests and many testing milestones. First, SpaceX performed the first full-stack Wet Dress Rehearsal with Booster 7 and Ship 24. This stack would later fly the first flight. The expectations for the flight weren’t high, and the stack was lost 4 minutes into the flight.
The flight had many issues, but the main issue was a fire that had broken out in Booster 7’s engine bay and burned through multiple wire harnesses, which cut off the flight computer’s control of the engines. Both vehicles also had issues with their Flight Termination Systems (FTS).
After this flight, SpaceX upgraded the fire suppression system for Boosters to avoid additional engine bay fires and upgraded the FTS on future Boosters and Ships. With the addition of Hot Staging and other upgrades, Flight 2 performed far better. Booster 9 made it all the way to main engine cutoff without losing a single engine, and then Ship 25, using hostaging, separated from the booster perfectly.
However, shortly after stage separation, Booster 9 was terminated due to possible issues with fuel sloshing. Ship 25 nearly made it all the way to the second stage engine cutoff; however, an unknown issue caused the FTS to be activated, and thus the vehicle was destroyed.
Along with the two flight tests, SpaceX achieved a full 33-engine static fire on Booster 9 and has continued to achieve flawless six-engine static fires on ships. Ship 26 and Ship 28 recently performed single-engine static fires with flight-like conditions to simulate a de-orbit burn.
To end the year, SpaceX has Ship 28 and Booster 10 out on the pad, with Ship 28 already performing a spin prime and two static fires. Booster 10 also attempted and then completed a static fire. Overall, it has been a very successful year for the Starship program, with many more milestones ahead.
KSC and the future
SpaceX has not worked on the Starship pad at LC-39A for several months. The plans for a Florida Starship pad haven’t been canceled, but SpaceX is more focused on flying from Starbase as they figure out the complete system. It is worth noting that SpaceX has big plans to expand its Starship capabilities with additional facilities similar to SpaceX’s facility at Roberts Road, but it is unknown when construction will start.
For 2024, SpaceX has several full stacks in different parts of assembly and testing, and could launch as many as five times. If SpaceX can have flawless or nearly flawless launches, Starship’s cadence can increase dramatically.
(Lead image: Booster 10 and Ship 28 at the launch site. Credit: Mary (@bocachicagal) For NSF)