It’s been a very busy week at Starbase Texas, with preflight testing beginning for Ship 20, as well as interesting developments regarding the LR11350 crane that was expected to begin installing Mechazilla. Finally, the last item on today’s agenda is the unsurprising extension of the public comment period for the FAA Environmental Assessment process.
Ship 20 Testing
On the 27th of September, Ship 20 completed its first ambient pressure test, where the vehicle is filled with gaseous nitrogen to check for leaks and to make sure that its fuel tanks can hold pressure. The test is performed with gaseous nitrogen due to the inert nature of the element and the simplicity in resolving any issues that may arise. At the end of the ambient test, when the pressure from the ship was released, the community was witness to several heatshield tiles being flung from the vehicle. It appears that the vent was perfectly positioned for the gas to be caught under the insulation material that sits under the heatshield tiles, inflating and pushing the tiles off. Later that night, the first attempt at Ship 20’s cryo-proof was attempted, although this was quickly aborted and rescheduled for later in the week.
The second attempt at the cryo-proof test occurred on the 29th of September, with Ship 20 taking on liquid nitrogen at cryogenic temperatures to simulate the temperature and pressure profiles of a full fuel tank for launch. Whilst this is occurring, underneath the vehicle are multiple thrust rams, which are devices meant to simulate the expected stress of Starship’s 6 raptor engines firing. These are separated into three Raptor Vacuum simulators, and a central thrust sim that simulates the three Raptor Center engines. The purpose of using these simulators is to make sure the vehicle can take the stresses related to launching before actually launching the vehicle.
The good news is that Ship 20 passed both tests with flying colors, which was first announced by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and then confirmed by the removal of thrust simulators from Suborbital Pad B. The next major milestone for Ship 20 testing is a successful static fire. This will require all six raptor engines to be reinstalled. The next available testing window begins on the 7th of September, with backup dates on the 8th and 11th of September.
Confirmation that the cryo proof was successful. Source: Elon Musk
LR11350 Reconfigured for Mechazilla
On the morning of the 30th of September, the LR11350 crane, previously used for tower assembly and quick disconnect arm lifting, was lowered to ground level. Initially, it was not known if this was due to incoming bad weather, reconfiguration for the Mechazilla lift and installation, or for disassembly due to other upcoming work commitments. Although, on the 4th of October, the LR11350 was seen rising again with a new configuration seemingly in preparation for the install of Mechazilla.
Not much is known about the install process of the catching and lifting mechanism for the Starship system. It is largely expected that the lifting carriage will be installed first and sit on a podium cap that was installed at the bottom of the tower. Then, each arm will be lifted and installed in place, with actuators to follow. Following this, the cable work to provide vertical motion will have to be threaded through the tower and mated to the carriage. Without a doubt, the install and testing of this system will be some of the most exciting progress seen at Starbase.
Extension to Public Comment Period
Finally, there has been an extension to the FAA Public Comment Period for Super Heavy Operations out of Boca Chica. This is not unsurprising due to the topic of the consultation, as well as the high amount of expected public feedback. Originally expected to end on October 18th, the public comment period will now end on November 1st.
The two virtual town halls have also been moved to the 18th and 20th of October, giving more notice and time to people wanting to attend. Once the period is over, the FAA and SpaceX will work through the comments together, mitigating any new unaddressed concerns discovered during this commentary period. Once this is complete and the final report published, SpaceX will be able to apply for a launch license.
While disappointing to see further delays to the first orbital test flight, it is important to remember that these processes are in place to give all potentially impacted parties a voice in the process. The long-term success of SpaceX in South Texas will require a lot of public support, which can only be gained through transparency and genuine participation in the process. Although it appears safe to assume the first orbital test flight will occur no earlier than 2022.