Starship preparations point to possible tower catch attempt on Flight 5

by Justin Davenport

The Starship program is testing with a possible tower catch in mind for the next flight of the system, a goal that seems more within reach after Flight 4’s successful ocean soft landing. In addition to a booster test section – Booster 14.1 – moving to the orbital launch pad, construction is underway on a second orbital launch pad at Starbase, using learnings from the first pad.

Many signs point to a possible catch attempt on the fifth flight of Starship. Elon Musk did post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that he thought there should be a catch attempt on Flight 5. A new communications license from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has language that states there will either be a soft ocean landing like on the last flight or a catch attempt at the orbital launch site.

Booster 14.1 to scale compared to Mechazilla and the launch tower. (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF/L2)

The most significant sign of SpaceX’s near-term flight testing intentions has been the rollout of a new test article known as Booster 14.1. B14.1 is a simulated small methane tank, including a booster forward dome, a common dome, and a quad methane tank section.

The truncated booster article was installed on the orbital launch pad by a crane after completing tests with the new crusher cap and the lift points at the former Masseys gun range, now a test site for Starbase.

There were three upcoming road closures listed for Starbase: Tuesday, June 25 from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM CDT (17:00 to 01:00 UTC, June 25/26), Wednesday, June 26 from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM CDT (13:00 to 01:00 UTC, June 26/27, and Thursday, June 27 at the same times as the June 26 closure.

However, SpaceX has since revoked the June 25 and June 27 closures and used the one on June 26 for testing.

The closure on June 26 was used to test B14.1 and SpaceX has an intermittent closure for June 27 from 12pm to 4pm for more testing. However, unlike previously thought, SpaceX did not pick up the shortened test booster, nor was it filled with either propellant or water.

Instead, SpaceX pressurized the test tank, and the north arm was quickly closed and hit the tank. SpaceX is testing this as during actual catch operations, the arms will have to close and touch the booster in order to get the landing rails under the lift points.

While B14.1 has been prepared for tests with the “chopstick” arms, likely as part of testing the system’s response before any catch attempt, other activities at Starbase are preparing the site for a busy and active future of launches, at least when there are no storms in the area.

Now SpaceX also had temporary closures that are from 10:00 PM June 26 to 2:00 AM CDT June 27 (03:00 to 07:00 UTC June 27), with the same timings for June 27/28 and June 28/29. These were placed to transport the last of the tower sections from the Port of Brownsville to the Sanchez Site, however the barge carrying the tower are not due into port until June 28. It is very unlikely any of these closures will be used.

Flooding at Starbase on June 20, 2024. (Credit: Sean Doherty for NSF/L2)

Weather conditions in the area became poor enough on June 20 that work had to be stopped at the facility. The winds would not allow safe work high up on the tower, while Highway 4 was flooded by heavy rains. The weather also forced a barge with launch tower elements to stop at Tampa during its voyage from Port Canaveral to Brownsville.

A second orbital launch pad is being built up at the site of the former suborbital launch pads, and a supporting foundation has been readied for the second tower. Large concrete pillars are now visible, and the last tower sections and “Mechazilla” parts are now back in transit from Florida through the Gulf of Mexico. The pillars appear different from the ones holding up the first orbital launch mount, and the new tower and launch mount designs will no doubt be informed by experience with the first orbital launch site at Starbase.

The second orbital launch pad’s pillars are seen here in work. (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF/L2)

The orbital tank farm, which will support both launch pads, has received a new long horizontal tank this week to add capacity and is currently being installed. While the tank farm is being upgraded, older vertical tanks constructed much earlier in the program are now being dismantled.

By now all of the cryogenic shells that were on the old vertical tanks have been scrapped. The old tank farm, with tanks built in a similar manner to Starship test ships, will be gone to possibly make way for additional infrastructure related to the current or new launch pad.

The new parking garage is shown here along with tower segments for the second launch pad. (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF/L2)

Besides launch infrastructure, the program has had much work done on buildings like a new parking garage and office building. The parking garage is nearly complete, and a sign that it is operational will be if there is reduced traffic parking on the side of Highway 4. In the meantime, a new office building has received additional levels.

As for when Flight 5 will fly, the entire heat shield, made up of over 18,000 tiles, is being replaced so that will play a part in when the flight is ready. The old tiles are being replaced with newer and stronger tiles as well as an ablative heat shield underneath these tiles for further thermal protection.

Ship 30 heat shield work in progress. (Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF/L2)

Starship can now fly missions that have very similar profiles to Flight 4 with the existing FAA license, but a license modification is needed for any catch attempt. If Flight 5 does indeed proceed with a catch attempt at the tower for Booster 12, additional paperwork will need to be filed for this license modification.

Inspections and work are being done on the orbital launch pad and mount to prepare for Flight 5 as well. Elon Musk has indicated late July as the goal for flying this mission, but it is very likely this will slip to August or even early September. Regardless of when it flies, it will be another case of “excitement guaranteed” especially if a tower catch is attempted.

(Lead image: Booster 14.1 on the Orbital Launch Mount at the pad. Credit: BocaChicaGal for NSF/L2)

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