After several successful tests last month, Elon Musk says that SpaceX’s South Texas Starship team is looking to rapidly expand in order to aggressively ramp up Starship manufacturing in a sign that the nascent rocket factory is making excellent progress.
Almost immediately after SpaceX successfully wrapped up its first and second explosive Starship tank tests last month, the company’s Boca Chica, Texas presence started to take on a new atmosphere, reminiscent of the rapid progress made at a since-mothballed Florida Starship facility. Perhaps thanks to the fact that SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship facilities are adjacent to a dedicated test and launch facility just a mile down the road, it’s looking much less likely that a similar fate will befall its Texas presence.
Instead, SpaceX’s successful Starship tank tests – intentionally destroying two massive propellant tanks – are a testament to the progress the next-generation rocket is making in Texas. In fact, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has effectively stated that after the most recent tank test, the company is now ready to shift gears and start building the first space-bound Starship prototypes, while the last week or two of SpaceX’s visible Texas activities make it clear that that shift is already well underway.
In simple terms, SpaceX now appears to be moving full speed ahead in a bid to manufacture, assemble, and test the first flightworthy, full-scale Starship prototypes. It’s worth noting that CEO Elon Musk has underestimated the challenge at hand several times in the last 18 or so months of Starship development, frequently suggesting that the first full-scale prototype of the spacecraft would be ready for a challenging flight test and maybe even its first orbital flights as early as 2019.
For a number of reasons, those ambitious targets were not met. To Musk’s credit, the executive is at least conscious of his tendency to be wildly optimistic when it comes to schedules and has effectively tacked on an asterisk that the schedules and deadlines he often publicizes tend more along the lines of “this time-frame is technically possible without breaking the laws of physics” than anything verging on pragmatism. With challenges as complex as those faced in spaceflight, let alone massive, fully-reusable rockets like Starship, it’s hard to be surprised that practical deadlines tend to be miles away from theoretically-possible minimums.
As such, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to feel a bit like the townspeople with a boy crying wolf, but there are arguably several reasons for optimism, this time around. Most importantly, as partially pictured above, SpaceX has completed four intentionally destructive tests with full-scale Starship hardware in just the last 2.5 months. Deemed unfit for flight, SpaceX pressurized Starship Mk1 with liquid nitrogen until it burst in November 2019, reaching an estimated 3-5 bar (45-75 psi).
SpaceX spent the following month upgrading both the methods and facilities used to build Starship prototypes in South Texas – a process that is still very much ongoing. However, two recent tests of Starship tanks built with some of those new methods and facilities have unequivocally proven that great progress is being made. The first ‘test tank’ managed 7.1 bar (105 psi) before it burst, while a second tank completed less than three weeks later reached 7.5 bar (110 psi) with water and 8.5 bar (125 psi) with liquid nitrogen on January 28th. Between those tests, Musk revealed that 6 bar was the bare minimum necessary for orbital Starship flights, while 8.5 bar would potentially offer the safety margins needed for crewed Starship flights.
In other words, SpaceX’s last two tank tests have effectively proved that – even with facilities and methods only partially upgraded – the company is ready to begin manufacturing the first truly flight-rated Starship prototypes. In response, Musk recently stated that he was going “max hardcore on” Starship design and production in Boca Chica and revealed that SpaceX would host a second South Texas jobs fair in three weeks to help rapidly staff its growing rocket factory.
Looking at the progress SpaceX has made in just the last week, it’s hard to fault Musk’s brimming enthusiasm. Now breaking in new semi-automated welding machines, upgraded production equipment, and two massive sprung structures (i.e. tents), SpaceX engineers and technicians are churning out improved steel rings, tank domes (bulkheads), smaller propellant tanks, and more at a breakneck pace relative to the last year of Starship work. Additionally, at least six of those new rings have been stacked together in two sections, likely representing the effective birth of the first flightworthy Starship – ‘SN01’.
With SpaceX’s new enclosed facilities, much of its South Texas work is now hidden. Still, from what’s visible, it’s safe to say that the company is well its way to completing the first flight – and possibly orbit – worthy Starship prototypes in the near future.
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