SpaceX’s first high-altitude Starship gets ready to prove itself

SpaceX has begun installing functional aerodynamic control surfaces on a Starship prototype for the first time. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

SpaceX has begun outfitting its first high-altitude Starship prototype with the basis of functional aerodynamic flaps, potentially paving the way for the ship’s first crucial proof test(s) in the near future.

Unsurprisingly, the first real attempt to install the functional ‘flaps’ Starships will use to fall back to Earth and land has been (relatively) slow going. The tank and engine section of Starship serial number 8 (SN8) – the high-altitude prototype-to-be – was stacked to its full height around August 27th. Shorthand for curved steel sections meant to make Starships more aerodynamic and protect sensitive mechanisms, the first signs of functional ‘aerocovers’ arrived in Boca Chica a few days later on August 31st.

Aerocover ‘caps’ arrived in Boca Chica in mid-August. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Long shrouds arrived in mid-September. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
A possible aerocover installation jig or flap frame. In the foreground, SpaceX already has several pairs of flaps on hand whenever SN8 is ready for them. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

A much longer aerocover appeared on September 11th and SpaceX appeared to begin installing it on Starship SN8 around September 14th, temporarily tack-welding it to the rocket’s hull. SpaceX may be using a sort of alignment jig (bottom photo above) to ensure that the extremely thin and flexible steel covers are easily installed in a uniform fashion where they’re supposed to be.

If not, the LEGO-esque structure could also be a rudimentary frame for Starship’s aft flaps – heavy and inefficient but extremely cheap and easy to build and tweak. Most of that work is being done inside SpaceX’s Starship assembly building, largely hidden from sight from public perspectives, so it’s hard to say anything with certainty until SN8 rolls out for the first time.

A closer view of the Starship SN8’s first aerocover. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starship SN7.1 is still awaiting its destructive end. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
SpaceX is already preparing for what comes after SN7.1, however. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

When that milestone will come is unclear, likely to the extent that even SpaceX isn’t sure. Currently, it’s unknown if SpaceX will fully outfit Starship SN8 with a nosecone and all four flaps before putting the prototype through its first proof tests – possibly up to and including the first static fire test with three Raptor engines. Starship SN8 is the first full-size prototype built out of a new steel alloy and while that alloy is currently being tested to its limits by test tank SN7.1, proving SN8’s integrity first would save a lot of time and effort in the event that SpaceX has more to learn about the limits of 304L steel and the ship fails during basic testing.

If SpaceX chooses to perform a cryogenic proof test prior to fully installing flaps and a nosecone, Starship SN8 could feasibly roll to the launch pad well before the end of the month. In fact, SpaceX moved a hydraulic ram used to simulate Raptor thrust back to the main test stand – where SN8 will likely undergo its first tests – on September 19th. Typically, that ram has been installed just days before a Starship is transported from factory to launch pad.

In the event that SpaceX chooses to perform a cryo proof test and/or static fire prior to fully integrating Starship SN8, the ship could likely be easily moved back to the factory to have its nosecone and flaps installed. Either way, chances are good that SN8 will be ready to head to the launch pad for its first test campaign within the next two weeks.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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