SpaceX Starship rocket set to reach full height for the second time ever

A SpaceX Starship rocket is about to reach its full height for either the second or first time, depending on how it's counted. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

A SpaceX Starship prototype is on track to become the first to reach its full, operational height in a permanent fashion, following in the footsteps of a much earlier prototype that had its nose section temporarily installed last year.

Known as Starship Mk1, that prototype served as more of a learning experience, pathfinder, and mockup over the ~8 months it took to build it and the few weeks it took to destroy it. While its conical nose section was partially outfitted with smaller ‘header’ propellant tanks, it was never fully installed, with SpaceX only temporarily stacking it on top of Starship Mk1’s tank section to serve as the centerpiece of CEO Elon Musk’s October 2019 update event. Mk1’s nosecone was removed shortly after the event was over, while the rocket’s more important tank section was rolled to a nearby launch pad for testing.

More than six months later, Starship SN5 appears to be firmly on its way to becoming the first of SpaceX’s next-generation launch vehicle prototypes to have a (mostly) functional nose section permanently installed. If that ends up being the case, SpaceX’s fifth full-scale Starship prototype may become the first to have multiple Raptor engines installed and the first to perform a high-altitude flight test. Of course, that will depend quite heavily on the fate of Starship SN4, currently trapped in limbo after a May 19th static fire caused SpaceX to partially lose control of the rocket.

More or a pathfinder and mockup, Starship Mk1 will soon make way for SN5, now firmly on track to become the first Starship prototype to reach full height. (SpaceX)

While not immediately clear, comments made by CEO Elon Musk and SpaceX officials suggested that the company was aiming to perform low-altitude hops with Starship SN4 and graduate to high-altitude testing with the next prototype off the assembly line (SN5). With a development program as agile as SpaceX’s Starship effort, however, plans are liable to change at almost any moment.

After several pathfinders and rejects, SpaceX has built the first upgraded nosecone set for installation on a Starship rocket. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

On May 17th, however, it became clear that – at least for the time being – SpaceX fully intends for Starship SN5 to become the first serially-produced ship to have a nosecone installed. On that Sunday, a brand new steel nose section – the fourth built by SpaceX in the last few months – was rolled out of a massive factory tent, revealing labels that rather unambiguously read “SN5”.

SN5 refers to Starship serial number 5, the fifth full-scale rocket prototype overall and fourth built since the start of 2020. Over the last six or so months, SpaceX has dramatically expanded its production footprint in South Texas, reaching a point now where it’s churning out a rough Starship prototype every month, on average. Starship SN5 is no different, with its tank section largely completed as of May 15th, give or take a day or two.

Starship SN5’s tank section was fully stacked on May 12th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
By May 14th or 15th, the two tank section halves appeared to be fully welded together. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Most recently, a stack of five steel rings appeared in the VAB alongside SN5’s largely finished tank and engine section. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Now, on May 19th, a new collection of five stacked steel rings appeared alongside Starship SN5’s largely completed tank and engine section. Combined with the new nosecone labeled “SN5”, it’s now readily and unequivocally apparent that the prototype is probably a matter of days away from having a nosecone installed. Unless SpaceX has adopted different methods for Starship SN6 production and assembly, a stack of five steel rings – lacking any sign of a tank dome welded inside it – will serve as the base that SN5’s nosecone can be stacked on top of. Once stacked with its nose section, Starship SN5 will measure some 50m (~165 ft) tall – at least several meters taller than a Falcon 9 booster.

Starship SN5’s nosecone, May 18th, 2020. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

The nosecone itself is also quite interesting, featuring two sets of four mysterious thruster nozzles, signs of interior components and reinforcements, and two recessed struts presumably meant to attach to Starship’s forward flaps.

While exciting, there is certainly still a chance that Starship SN4 – trapped at the launch pad – will have to be destroyed or will be unsalvageable even if SpaceX is able to finally access and safe the prototype. If so, Starship SN5 will likely take its place, performing a Raptor static fire, a ~150m (~500 ft) hop test, and an additional ~3 km (~1.9 mi) flight test before potentially moving on to triple Raptor operations and high-altitude flights. Stay tuned for updates on SN4’s fate and SN5’s production status.

SpaceX Starship rocket set to reach full height for the second time ever
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