SpaceX execs bullish on BFR as Mars rocket test facilities expand in Texas [photos]

Aerial observations of SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas testing facilities on April 17 revealed an unusually frenetic level of construction and expansion centered around Raptor – the rocket engine intended to power BFR and SpaceX to Mars – and a new test-stand, the purpose of which is currently unknown.

With a minimum of 1200 seconds of hot-fires under its belt, SpaceX’s Raptor propulsion program is likely rapidly approaching the end of what is best described as the experimental phase of testing. While this has not been communicated by SpaceX, it is a logical conclusion following several recent developments. Namely the true beginning of BFR test article fabrication and an impressively bullish level of commitment and confidence in the fully reusable launch system demonstrated in the last few months alone by CEO Elon Musk and President/COO Gwynne Shotwell. While Musk is infamous both within and beyond his companies for painfully impractical development timelines, he demonstrated some level of growing consciousness of that fallibility at 2018’s SXSW, stating that he was working on recalibrating his expectations. Without taking a breath, he reiterated his anticipation for short hop tests of the first full-scale spaceship prototype in the first half of 2019.

SpaceX’s three-bay Raptor test stand as of April 17. The middle bay is currently home to the subscale Raptor test program. (Aero Photo)

While anyone familiar with Musk’s timeline antics may roll their eyes and laugh, far more shocking was Shotwell’s sudden pivot towards a new sense of optimism for the BFR program. At Satellite Conference 2018, the typically reserved and pragmatic executive confirmed beyond any doubt that she had become aggressively bullish on the Mars rocket, stating that she believed the spaceship would be ready for suborbital testing in 2019, while the booster-spaceship system could potentially reach orbit by 2020. Musk and Shotwell’s suggestion that BFR’s first suborbital testing – akin to an extreme version of SpaceX’s Grasshopper and F9R programs – is expected to begin in 2019 meshes well with a recent explosion of activity at Port of San Pedro in Los Angeles, CA, thanks to a combination of land acquisition, successful bureaucracy-wrangling,  and the first hints of construction and BFR production. It’s highly unlikely that SpaceX would have chosen to temporarily move BFR prototyping into a giant tent on abandoned dock space rather than waiting for port and city approvals for their permanent port factory if they were not keen on moving full speed ahead with the fully reusable launch vehicle’s development.

SpaceX’s Director of Real-Estate Bruce McHugh was less confident when he spoke before Port of San Pedro’s board of commissioners on April 19, although all in attendance expressed a huge amount of excitement at the increasingly likely prospects of a huge SpaceX rocket factory materializing in their neighborhood. Local contractors, economic development representatives, and many other community members were eager for the approval and permitting process to finish up, after which SpaceX is characteristically likely to begin demolition and construction in earnest at Berth 240, the prospective site for the company’s first dedicated BFR factory.

Early phases of in-house BFR structures prototyping is taking shape behind the flaps of a custom-ordered temporary tent, something like 60m long, 30m wide, and ~15m tall at the highest point – half an acre of eccentric but functional space for Mars rocket R&D, in other words. The primary benefit of these facilities’ dock-side locations is the minimization of the transportation hell that SpaceX would have had to suffer through to transport 9m-diameter rocket hardware through downtown Los Angeles – feats that would cost as much as $2.5 million one way each time components had to be moved from the Hawthorne factory to the Port of LA, where it would be finally shipped to Texas or Florida.

Speaking at a private talk given to MIT campus members in October 2017, attendees reported that Shotwell stated that although “[BFR’s] composite tanks [would] be a challenge [for SpaceX],” the company was already working on maturing the technologies required, and also noted that SpaceX was “building a larger [version of] Raptor right now.” Half a year later, outsiders have heard nothing of any additional carbon composite propellant tank testing at the new 9m diameter, but the existence of custom-ordered (i.e. very expensive and specialized) composite fabrication tooling of the same diameter as BFR effectively guarantees that SpaceX has settled upon and is confident in its approach to manufacturing the massive composite tankage and structures. Along with a similar line of thought, expensive tooling with a fixed diameter also indicates – albeit with less certainty – that the vehicle’s Raptor propulsion system is not expected to change significantly as BFR marches closer to suborbital and orbital testing. Raptor, in other words, is probably considerably more mature than SpaceX’s composite tankage expertise, itself fairly advanced given the mandrel and additional fabrication tooling already present at Port of San Pedro.

And yet, Shotwell’s most telling display of confidence occurred just a handful of days ago at the TED2018 conference. In a lengthy and fairly well-orchestrated interview with the session’s host Chris Anderson, Shotwell repeatedly and happily made comments indicating that she has become extremely bullish on BFR and BFS in the last several months. In her opinion, BFR (and point-to-point Earth transport) will be deployed “within a decade, for sure.” Prices would nominally be “between business and economy,” or a few thousand dollars per person. Speaking on the trip from Earth to Mars, she estimated a three-month journey with BFR Block 1, “but [SpaceX is] gonna try to do it faster.” She further confirmed that SpaceX intends to build much larger BFRs, meshing with Elon’s suggestions that 2016’s ITS concept is now perceived internally as a sort of BFR Block 2. Perhaps most importantly, she qualified her timeline estimates as “Gwynne-time” when Anderson jokingly deadpanned about the infamous Elon-time. Overall, Shotwell came across as more bullish than she has ever been before on BFR’s development and future prospects, including both point-to-point transport on Earth and crewed missions to the surface of Mars – both of which she expected to begin “within a decade, for sure.” Smirking, she quipped that she was “sure Elon would want us to go faster.”

Not one to end on a quiet note, the typically pragmatic executive finished by describing how she believed that spreading human presence throughout the Sol System was only “the first step [towards] moving to other solar systems and potentially other galaxies; I think this is the only time I ever out-vision Elon.” Interstellar travel and faster-than-light propulsion aspirations aside, Shotwell’s comments mark a fairly incredible shift in attitude toward SpaceX’s far loftier ambitions. Musk seems to be working to recalibrate his timelines to be less naive at the same time as Shotwell’s confidence is steadily growing – the two executives, in other words, appear to be rapidly converging upon a middle ground of pragmatic optimism (that or Musk-time is contagious!).

As shown above, the level of construction activity at SpaceX’s Texas testing facilities is fairly impressive and could perhaps be seen as evidence that both Musk and Shotwell are speaking from a place of something approaching pragmatism. While the purpose of the new stand (center) is not yet clear, several aspects indicate that it is unlikely to be more mundane. First, the massive water tower (one that did not exist just a month or two ago, might I add) dwarfs anything found at individual engine or upper stage test stands at the SpaceX facility. It’s possible that the existence of the flame trench alone necessitates the inclusion of such a large water suppression system for damage prevention, but the presence of the blue steel skeleton of a new flame bucket (operational iterations shown on the right) suggests otherwise. For example, the Merlin stands have no such water suppression system: they do use water suppression to avoid damaging the ground systems or the engines themselves, but that water is stored in a large ground-level tank. A tower, however, indicates that SpaceX wants much higher water pressures and flow rates to be available at the new stand, a requirement for significantly more powerful tests akin to SpaceX’s full-up Falcon 9 (and Heavy) test stand – the water towers at the S1 stand and this new stand appear to be identical in size.

In other words, it’s more probable than not that this new stand is being built to support either booster static fires or much larger tests of BFR hardware (perhaps multiple Raptors at once, akin to SpaceX’s very early tests of Falcon 9’s nine Merlins). It could, of course, be used for many different tasks, but only time will tell. Given the sheer level of physical progress made in the BFR program and the swelling confidence of Musk and Shotwell, I certainly know where I’d hedge my bets.

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SpaceX execs bullish on BFR as Mars rocket test facilities expand in Texas [photos]
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