SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been sharing
a number of updates about SpaceX progress on Starship this week, indicating that the
first upgraded Starship prototype’s flight debut is imminent. Along with footage of the assembly process
of the current “SN1” prototype of Starship, he explained on Twitter some of the other
considerations and strategies the company is working with as it works on the new spacecraft
and tries to fly it to space this year. Workers at the SpaceX factory have been working
“around the clock” for a month to build the first full-scale flightworthy Starship
prototype, a process that only began after two ‘test tanks’ were fabricated, assembled,
and pressurized until they burst on January 10th and 28th. Built with improved tools and methods, those
test results allowed SpaceX to empirically confirm that its current infrastructure and
techniques are ready to manufacture orbital-class Starships right now. Musk said that SpaceX is iterating at a much
faster pace with Starship than it has recently with Falcon, as Falcon’s design more or
less stabilized once it started working consistently. He noted that the ability to progress with
the design toward having a production vehicle is dependent on the number of interactions
of the prototypes of the spacecraft, multiplied by the progress achieved between each version. In this video Engineering Today will discuss
Spacex Starship progress in company South Texas facility, where SpaceX team is super-busy
prepping Starship for its next big test. SpaceX already beginning final assembly of
Starship SN1 ahead of roll to the pad. Let’s get into details. SpaceX teams have begun stacking Starship
SN1, the rocket is gearing up for its first flight, which will see the vehicle fly to
around 20 kilometers in altitude and then propulsively land back at the launch facility. SN1 is SpaceX’s second Starship vehicle
to be built in Boca Chica. The original Starship – named Mk1 – failed
cryogenic pressurization testing. The failure prevented Mk1 from getting the
chance to fire its three Raptor engines. SN1 is currently intended to be SpaceX’s
first Starship to perform a flight. Unlike the Mk1 build, where SpaceX began stacking
the vehicle from the beginning of production, teams are taking a more pragmatic approach
with SN1. Instead, the vehicle is being assembled in
smaller chunks which will then be welded together during final assembly. SN1 began in earnest around mid-January, perhaps
less than a month ago. Over the course of that month, SpaceX’s
South Texas team has made spectacular progress. Starship SN1’s business half – comprised
of a Raptor engine section, a liquid oxygen tank, a methane tank, and all associated tank
domes and plumbing – is likely just a single big stacking and welding event away from being
structurally complete. SpaceX stacked two of the chunks together
to complete the majority of SN1’s tank section. Due to the sections being mostly completed
before stacking, the final assembly of SN1 should occur much faster than Mk1. The upper section of the prototype – Starship’s
curved nose and a few less-critical steel rings – has, however, been a bit more elusive. Aside from a few partial glimpses earlier
this month, that nose appeared for the first time, February 20, Thursday, Elon Musk teased
footage from his South Texas Starship factory where he posted a glimpse of a nearly-completed
rocket nosecone. This suggested that the first upgraded Starship
prototype’s flight launch was imminent. SpaceX has been rapidly adding additional
tents to support Starship production. The new structures have helped shield the
teams and the hardware from the harsh South Texas weather. Musk’s video revealed that tent is already
full of Starship production hardware. It is understood that SpaceX is currently
hoping to have the entire vehicle stacked and moved to the pad by the end of the month. If all goes well, a static fire of the SN1
vehicle’s three Raptor engines could then occur in early March, potentially setting
the stage for the 20 kilometer hop within a few weeks of the static fire. However, due to the fluid nature of test campaigns,
setbacks and schedule slips are likely. Unfavorable weather is also forecasted over
the next few days, potentially leading to additional delays. While this timeframe may sound ambitious given
that only the tank section of the vehicle has been stacked together so far, all of the
remaining sections of SN1 are currently being stored inside of the tents in Boca Chica. SpaceX must also eventually develop its “Super
Heavy” booster, because launching humans or a large amount of cargo to the Moon and Mars
will require a large first stage to boost a fully laden Starship into low-Earth orbit. This would allow Starship to use its propellant
to inject itself into lunar orbit and then land on the surface of the Moon. A second windbreak is being assembled and
is far taller than the original. The new windbreak’s tall height could also
be useful for the eventual assembly of a Super Heavy booster. Over the past several weeks, SpaceX has built
and tested several prototype tank sections based on the improved production techniques. Teams have made solid progress, with the most
recent test. SpaceX’s January 2020 Starship test tank
program proved as much, demonstrating that thin steel tanks built in tents can serve
as orbital-class pressure vessels and survive at internal pressures greater as high as 8.5
bar while filled with cryogenic liquid. Nevertheless, SpaceX’s small test tank successes
do not necessarily guarantee that the same kind of tests performed at full scale will
be equally successful. The biggest proof of concept for SpaceX’s
upgraded Starship production methods will involve manufacturing, fueling, static-firing,
and – eventually – flying a complete Starship prototype built with the same methods as those
test tanks. The pressure vessel section of Starship SN1
appears to be nearly complete, missing only its integrated engine section and oxygen tank
dome before it could theoretically be ready to start cryogenic testing. Once SN1 is at the pad, SpaceX will likely
perform a wet dress rehearsal – where the Starship is fully loaded with propellants
– to ensure that the full-scale vehicle properly handles the cryogenic fuels. Teams will then perform fuel pre-burner and
ignitor tests with the three Raptor engines before eventually moving into the static fire
test. If all goes well, SpaceX will then proceed
with the 20-kilometer hop. While SN1 remains the company’s short term
focus, SpaceX is also quickly preparing for the future of Starship production. Numerous other facilities across the country
are being readied for production to ramp up. At the company’s test facility in McGregor
Texas, SpaceX recently completed the first hot firing of a Raptor engine on the iconic
tripod stand. The large concrete structure was originally
built in the 1990s by Beal Aerospace, a now-defunct spaceflight startup, and came under SpaceX
ownership when the company bought the McGregor, Texas facilities in 2003. SpaceX repurposed the stand to static fire
Falcon 9 boosters for a number of years, eventually replacing it with a ground-level installation
in 2015 that has since been used to test more than 60 Falcon 9 and Heavy boosters. Due to a need for a vertical Raptor test stand,
SpaceX began modifying the tripod stand to support Raptor engine tests in the final months
of 2019. Raptor is the methane-fueled engine that will
power SpaceX’s Starship and Super Heavy vehicles. Additional Starship activity was also recently
spotted at SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. A Starship-like tank section appears to be
under construction near the landing zone. It is understood that SpaceX plans to build
a Raptor test stand at the facility. Finally, on the west coast, SpaceX intends
to once again build a Starship production facility at the Port of Los Angeles. SpaceX and the port had an earlier agreement
to lease the property in 2018, when the company said it planned to build a factory there for
what was then known as its Big Falcon Rocket, now known as Starship and Super Heavy. The large size of the vehicles requires the
water access the port site provided to transport the vehicles to launch sites in Florida or
Texas. However, in January 2019, SpaceX pulled out
of the project, announcing that to “streamline operations” it would build Starship vehicles
at its South Texas site. The company also started building a second
Starship vehicle at an industrial site in Cocoa, Florida, near Cape Canaveral. SpaceX is now interested in a new agreement
to utilize the Berth 240 at the Port of Los Angeles, as the company has decided that additional
production real estate will be required to supplement their existing facilities.