According to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, the company has plans to both build and launch BFR’s Starship upper stages and Super Heavy boosters at facilities located in Boca Chica, Texas and Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Indicative of SpaceX and Musk’s rapidly evolving plans for the next-generation, ultra-reusable launch system, the to stainless steel over carbon composites appears to continue to have a range of trickle-down consequences (or benefits) throughout the rocket’s design, production, launch, and operations. Given the 3+ radical, clean-sheet design changes the BFR program has undergone in about as many years, it’s hard to definitively conclude much about the latest iteration. Nevertheless, Musk’s indication that stainless steel BFRs may now be built simultaneously at multiple locations suggests that the construction of steel Starships and Super Heavies could be radically easier (and cheaper) than their composite predecessors.
Over the last several months, SpaceX’s manufacturing plans for the massive Starship and Super Heavy vehicles have effectively been up in the air from a public perspective. Official statements provided in January suggested that the first prototypes would be built in-situ after word broke that SpaceX had prematurely terminated a lease with the Port of Los Angeles, where the company had – throughout 2018 – been planning to construct a dedicated seaside BFR factory.
Likely for a variety of reasons, all of which are unknown, SpaceX apparently no longer has a pressing need for dedicated traditional manufacturing facilities at this point in time. Instead, the company is relying extensively on the largely unprecedented practice of building its first suborbital and orbital Starship and Super Heavy vehicles outdoors, much to the visible discomfort of aerospace industry practitioners, followers, and fans alike.
At a bare minimum, SpaceX’s decision to fabricate and assemble large-scale methalox rocket stages with quite literally zero protection from the elements may be one of the most ‘nontraditional’ things the habitually disruptive company has ever done. At the opposite end of the spectrum, building rockets outside could be perceived as an unfathomably foolish endeavor, radically increasing the risk of dangerous manufacturing defects, foreign objects debris (FOD) mitigation, and – ultimately – major vehicle failures. From such an external perspective, wholly lacking any insight from SpaceX itself, it’s difficult to conclude much of anything.
On the one hand, a highly-disciplined adherence to the tenets of best aerospace industry practices and responsible engineering could probably mitigate the risks of en plein air rocket building, particularly if combined with exceptional hardware design optimized for manufacturing, resiliency, reliability, and fault-tolerance. In a perfect world, Elon Musk would be completely aware of all aspects of his companies, while SpaceX’s management would be explicitly focused on encouraging good work and getting the job done right, versus pressuring employees to prioritize speed and low costs over quality. On the opposite hand, it seems unlikely that the former scenario could be made compatible with management and workers capable of failing to do something as simply as safely protecting valuable flight hardware from wind damage.
Given that the production of orbital-class, super-heavy lift rockets has really only been attempted twice (Saturn V and Russia’s N1), both times with custom-built, environmentally-controlled factories, it’s likely that SpaceX is already suffering from the inherent uncertainty of the tasks at hand; forging new ground – especially in highly technical fields – is rarely easy or forgiving. Given the aforementioned challenges of building large and reliable rockets at all, challenges that regularly topple vehicles built in traditional factories, it will likely remain an open question if SpaceX can consistently build reliable, technologically-advanced rockets and spacecraft outside until those vehicles have quite literally proven themselves in orbit.
Difficulties aside, it’s easy to understand why SpaceX (or maybe just Elon) is willing to at least attempt something that has never been done before. If the company could find a way to reliably build complex, high-performance rockets without the need for expensive factories, it could radically change the paradigm of rocketry by reducing the often eye-watering upfront costs of building giant launch vehicles. The ability to build rockets almost independently of dedicated factories or assembly facilities would also allow SpaceX to – as Musk said – build their vehicles where they launch, further minimizing the significant challenges and costs of transporting extremely large structures more than a couple of miles.
Regardless of the major challenges standing between SpaceX and its stainless steel Starship/Super Heavy aspirations, Elon Musk appears to be as confident as ever, frankly stating that Starship’s rate of progress “far exceeds” that of Falcon and Dragon. In other words, the apparent instability of the BFR program may actually end up being to its benefit, potentially resulting in a finished product that simultaneously takes less time to come to fruition and is ultimately much closer to its original design intent. At risk of putting the wrong words into Musk’s mouth, it seems that he believes that SpaceX might be able to arrive at a Starship/Super Heavy combo much closer to Falcon 9 Block 5 than Falcon 9 V1.0 and do so far sooner than most believe is possible.
Only time will tell. In the meantime, there will be plenty of fireworks, beginning as early as this week with the first static fire test – and potential hops – of SpaceX’s massive Starship Hopper. Stay tuned for updates!
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