SpaceX's Texas Starship factory set to receive more parts from Florida

SpaceX has begun scrapping one of the original Starship prototypes and the only ship built in Florida. (John Winkopp - Seamore Holdings)

After successfully delivering Starship hardware and manufacturing tools to SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas rocket factory and launch facilities, the company has begun preparing a second load of parts to be shipped from Florida to Texas in the near future.

This is the latest chapter in a saga that began when SpaceX revealed that it would effectively pause its Florida Starship manufacturing operations and reassign most of its affected employees. Since SpaceX’s early-December confirmation, the company’s Cocoa, Florida Starship production hub has been more or less at a standstill, only interrupted once and awhile by efforts to either scrap hardware that is no longer needed or send it to Texas, where SpaceX has redoubled efforts to build the next series of Starship prototypes.

Teams in Florida are still working tirelessly to construct a massive Starship launch mount at Pad 39A believed to be capable of supporting full-scale Starship and Super Heavy static fires and launches, confirmation that SpaceX is likely only temporarily halting Starship production in the region. Nevertheless, the focus is now unequivocally on SpaceX’s Boca Chica facilities, where the company is rapidly building and expanding manufacturing facilities and constructing the next full-scale Starship prototype (SN01).

Although manufacturing operations have been paused in Florida, the existing Cocoa facility still has a huge amount of Starship hardware strewn about, most of which appears to be bound for scrapyards. Some of that hardware and infrastructure, however, can be salvaged and used elsewhere by SpaceX, and that is exactly what the company is now doing.

Most recently, SpaceX loaded transport ship GO Discovery with two giant steel stands and a completed Starship dome and transported that hardware from Port Canaveral, Florida to Port of Brownsville in early-December 2019. After arriving, SpaceX moved the rocket parts and infrastructure by road to its Boca Chica facilities, where they have since been stored until they’re needed.

While they may look rather small on GO Discovery, the steel assembly rings she transported to Texas are absolutely massive. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

At the moment, the almost-finished Starship Mk2 prototype remains at SpaceX’s Cocoa factory in three giant pieces – a cylindrical tank and engine section, the start of a curved nose section, and the tip of that nose section. It remains to be seen what the fate of those rocket parts is, as much of the structure could theoretically be sent to Texas to expedite Starship SN01 production and assembly. However, the utility of those parts is likely almost entirely dependent on their quality and the design and fabrication delta between them and whatever SpaceX has in mind for the next phase of prototypes.

SpaceX continues to develop Starship in largely the same way it worked on Falcon 9 booster landings, beginning with a minimum viable product (Grasshopper/Starhopper) and gradually improving the test hardware into something much more reminiscent of the real deal (F9R/Starship Mk1, Mk2). Ultimately, all the experience gained and lessons learned from building and flying those increasingly more complex prototypes is merged with true orbital-class flight hardware.

It appears that SpaceX (or at least CEO Elon Musk) believes that the company may have already learned enough from Starhopper and Starship Mk1/Mk2 to graduate directly to some form of serial production – implied by his statement that the next Texas prototype will now be known as Starship SN01. Formerly Starship Mk3, Starship SN01 will be built with an array of refined or fully-new production and assembly processes, hopefully resulting in a prototype that is significantly more refined than Starship Mk1, which is believed to have been intentionally destroyed during pressure testing in November 2019.

In line with that strategy, SpaceX is preparing to ship more upgraded Starship hardware and infrastructure from Florida to Texas.

Based on photos taken in the last few days by local photographer and observer John Winkopp, GO Discovery’s next shipment will include a number of rolls of stainless steel stock, another steel stand for Starship ring assembly, and parts of another unfinished Starship tank dome.

Altogether, it’s possible that Starship SN01 assembly will end up taking far less time than Starship Mk1 or Mk2. Musk believes that that new and improved Starship prototype could be ready for flight testing as early as February or March 2020.

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Eric Ralph: I write about space, among other things.
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