At the same time as SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas team is working around the clock to prepare Starship Mk1 for several major tests, the company is building a second dedicated Starship launch complex at Pad 39A and as of November 4th, that construction effort has reached a symbolic milestone.
According to photos taken by local resident and famed rocket and ship photographer Julia Bergeron on a bus tour of Kennedy Space Center (KSC), SpaceX has officially begun to install a large steel structure at Launch Complex 39A, a pad the company has leased from NASA since 2014. Known as a launch mount, the massive structure will one day support SpaceX’s first East Coast Starship and Super Heavy static fires and test flights.
At SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas Starship facilities, the company has already made a huge amount of progress fabricating and outfitting a brand new launch mount that will soon support Starship Mk1’s first propellant loading, static fire, and flight tests. The spartan steel structure looks different from anything SpaceX has built in the past for Falcon 9 and is equally unrecognizable alongside the renders of a finished-product launch pad included in an updated Starship launch video.
What is undeniable, nevertheless, is the speed with which technicians have taken the Texas launch mount from a group of unconnected, partially-finished parts to a nearly complete structure with the business half of Starship Mk1 installed on top. SpaceX workers have built the mount, completed a large amount of plumbing to connect it to nearby liquid oxygen, methane, nitrogen, and helium reserves, and installed Starship on the mount in less than two months. The final integration of different prefabricated pieces began barely a month before Starship was moved to the pad, as pictured below.
Two pads, two approaches
Although Boca Chica’s launch mount is quite large, based on Julia’s photos of Pad 39A, Florida’s nascent launch mount is going to be significantly bigger. The section that SpaceX began installing in the first days of November appears already be much taller than the mount in Texas, and it also looks more like a rectangular corner than anything resembling part of Boca Chica’s hexagonal structure.
At the same time, the apparent rectangular corner being worked on in Florida would be a much better fit for the partially-enclosed launch mount structure shown in SpaceX’s official 2019 Starship launch video.
This is all to say that it looks like SpaceX is taking significantly different approaches with its two prospective Starship launch sites, which should come as no surprise in the context of the Starship program. SpaceX is already competitively building multiple Starship prototypes at two separate facilities in Boca Chica, Texas and Cocoa, Florida, a competition that has already produced visible differences between Mk1 and Mk2 prototypes. There’s a good chance that SpaceX intends to preserve that competitive atmosphere with Starship’s launch facilities, not just the rocket itself.
Additionally, it’s clear that Texas and Florida currently serve very different roles in the actual testing of Starship prototypes. Boca Chica has been active in that regard for more than half a year, ranging from the first Starhopper static fire in April to Starhopper’s 150-meter test flight in August. Florida has been almost entirely focused on iterating the build process itself and has already prefabricated nearly two dozen single-weld steel rings that will soon become Starship Mk4.
A step further, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has made it clear that he is pushing for Starship’s first orbital launch to occur in the first half of 2020, an incredibly ambitious target given that the first Super Heavy booster prototype has yet to begin fabrication or assembly of any kind. Regardless, with that ambitious target in mind, SpaceX still needs to try to build a launch facility capable of standing up to a vehicle more powerful than Saturn V unfathomably quickly.
Head in the clouds
More likely than not, SpaceX’s Pad 39A Starship facilities will (attempt to) be that launch facility. An August 2019 environmental impact statement revealed that SpaceX would avoid Pad 39A’s massive flame trench and instead build a separate water-cooled thrust diverter, a technology SpaceX is extremely familiar with.
The diverter will likely have to be larger than anything SpaceX has ever attempted to build and will take a significant amount of time and money to fabricate, but the approach could potentially allow SpaceX to build Super Heavy-rated launch facilities from scratch in just 6-12 months. Put simply, however, SpaceX is not going to want to build a Starship-sized thrust diverter and launch mount in Florida if it will almost immediately have to build a second, larger replacement big enough for orbital launch attempts with Super Heavy.
All things considered, it’s thus reasonably likely that SpaceX’s first draft of Florida Starship launch facilities will immediately jump to something sized for Super Heavy static fires and launches, even if that means it will take much longer to complete. If the pace of launch pad development in Boca Chica is anything to go by, it’s entirely possible that SpaceX will go from breaking ground at Pad 39A (mid-September 2019) to a more or less complete Starship-Super Heavy launch mount in roughly half a year.
Even if it takes more than a year to build, SpaceX could still be ready to attempt Starship’s first orbital launch well before the end of 2020.
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