SpaceX’s Starship prototype set for first serious test after Raptor engine installed

Starhopper conducts a propellant tank pressure regulation test on March 18th. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

In concert with South Texas’ Cameron County, SpaceX has officially scheduled the first serious test – requiring temporary road closures – of its Starship prototype, unofficially nicknamed ‘Starhopper’ in light of its ultimate goal of performing low-altitude, low-velocity hop tests.

SpaceX technicians have already successfully completed a number of unspecified tanking tests – likely with chemically neutral liquid nitrogen – and completed acceptance and installation of Raptor serial number 02 (SN02), setting the stage for the giant testbed’s first flight-critical tests. Now set to occur between 10am and 4pm local time (8am2pm Pacific, 15:00-21:00 UTC), that test debut will likely see Starhopper topped to the brim with liquid methane and oxygen propellant for the first time, potentially transitioning into the first BFR-integrated Raptor static fire test.

Scarcely seven days after the engine’s arrival in Boca Chica, SpaceX technicians completed the first-ever installation of a flight-ready Raptor – SN02 – on a full-scale BFR prototype known as Starhopper. Aside from marking a major symbolic milestone for the company’s next-generation rocket development program, the installation of a functional rocket engine on the first partial-fidelity vehicle prototype means that SpaceX can now enter into a new and critical stage of development: integrated flight testing.

Assuming (hopefully) that SpaceX has yet to conduct actual fueling tests of the Starship prototype without establishing roadblocks and safety perimeters, something that would be an egregious threat to nearby locals, it’s likely that this first major test – much like SpaceX’s established Falcon 9 and Heavy test regime – will involve a process known as a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR). A WDR would see Starhopper loaded with liquid methane and oxygen propellant – potentially anywhere from the bare minimum needed to operate a single Raptor to completely filling its tanks – to verify that the prototype’s complex plumbing system and giant tanks are operating nicely together under flight conditions (i.e. cryogenic temperatures, thermal and mechanical stresses, chemical environments, etc.). Much like routine Falcon 9 static fire tests performed both at SpaceX’s McGregor, TX test site and the launch pad, data indicating that the rocket is behaving nominally during the WDR allows the operations team to transition smoothly from a WDR into a captive static fire test, in which the vehicle’s engine(s) are briefly ignited to simulate the first few seconds prior to liftoff.

It’s relatively rare but not unusual for planned Falcon 9 or Heavy static fire tests to end during the WDR phase in cases where the launch team observes data that appears to be less than nominal. SpaceX generally takes a “better safe than sorry” approach to these sorts of operations, swallowing the costs and risk of raising customers’ ire due to delays in order to ensure the highest probability of complete launch success.

For a vehicle as utterly new and alien as Starhopper is to both SpaceX and the aerospace industry as a whole, it’s safe to say that that tendency towards caution will be readily on display throughout these first several tests, at least until the company’s operations technicians and engineers are considerably more familiar with the prototype rocket’s behavior. On the other hand, given just how shoestring the budget of this beast likely is and how rapidly SpaceX managed to go from an empty dirt lot to a hop-test-ready, 30ft/9m-diameter Starship prototype, it’s equally likely that the company – particularly CEO Elon Musk – will accept the increased risk of catastrophic vehicle failures to keep the development program as agile as possible.

According to CEO Elon Musk, this large metal cylinder is actually one of the barrel sections of the first orbital Starship prototype. Workers are welding the sections together outside, rain or shine. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starhopper makes its own clouds during tanking tests on March 14th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

As Musk himself frequently and famously is known to say, it’s far better to push hardware to failure during early testing than it is to hold back and risk largely unplanned failures during nominal operations, a lesson that SpaceX itself has learned the hard way several times. One step further, while they are at best undeniably inconvenient and expensive, major vehicle failures during testing can actually be an invaluable source of data that ultimately improves the system as a whole. For BFR, a launch vehicle meant to safely, routinely, and reliably transport as many as 100+ people both around the Earth and solar system, all possible opportunities to learn and improve the system prior to risking the lives of passengers will be an absolute necessity if SpaceX wants to ensure that customers remain willing to trust the company and its spacecraft with their lives.

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SpaceX’s Starship prototype set for first serious test after Raptor engine installed
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