Starbase for Beginners

Written by: Carl Bolland (/u/TheEarthquakeGuy)

Your guide to the SpaceX Starship facility in South Texas

Welcome to arguably the most important facility in the world for the future of manned Space Flight. That’s not an exaggeration either. Starbase, as it’s now referred to, is home to the world’s most advanced space flight program since the Apollo era. If you’re new to following the progress of Starbase though, it might get a little confusing, so let’s cover the basics of the facilities in this Starbase for beginners guide.

Starship looms in the darkness behind the illuminated Starbase sign at the SpaceX build site in South Texas.
Sign at the entrance of Starbase Texas. Photo: Dale Rutherford


Shipyard

First, let’s start at the Shipyard, also called the Build Site. This is the factory portion of the facility, where large rolls of stainless steel alloy go in one end, and starships and boosters come out the other. Although, it’s not as easy as that. Within the shipyard are two sets of buildings, each with its purpose and use, but they can be grouped into the tents and the bays.

Image

Starbase production facility. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography
 

The three large manufacturing tents are where the majority of the fabrication work of all the vehicles, test articles, and tanks is completed. 

  • Tent 1, which is closest to State Highway 4 is used for staging both ring segments for further work and the raptor engines that are installed on vehicles currently in production.
  • Tent 2 is where the rings are fabricated, and where segments and domes are initially assembled. To the Northside of the tent, there are sleeving jigs where the domes and the ring segments are joined to create a seal.
  • Tent 3 is the nose cone tent, where the tops of Starships are created and sometimes tiled. To the North side of Tent 3 is the Low Bay, but more on that in just a moment.

RGV Aerial Photography on Twitter: "I spot more nose cones inside the onion  tent. #spacex #bocachica #starship @elonmusk @SpaceX… "Close-up of a manufacturing tent. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography

 

Currently, there are three bays, with a fourth under construction. Each of these structures has its purpose in the vehicle building process. 

  • The Low Bay, to the North of Tent 3, is where the nose cones are worked on with tiling, mounting to ring segments, and preparation for further assembly.
  • The Mid Bay which is to the South of Tent 1, closest to State Highway 4, is used to assemble the body section of the Ships, as well as other test tanks or Ground Service Equipment Tanks. 
  • The High Bay is where the ship nose cone section and the body section are joined, as well as all of the Booster assembly work. Currently, this is the only structure tall enough to support both a full starship and a full booster assembly, although not at the same time.
  • The new High Bay (Name yet to be announced) will be able to support two parallel builds, meaning in this new building, they will be able to build a Booster and Ship at the same time with space to spare.

SpaceX successfully lands a Starship test flight - Ars Technica OpenForum

A Starship prototype sits stacked in the High Bay. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography

 

Something important to remember about the shipyard is that it is constantly evolving as SpaceX figures out the design and build processes for the full Starship stack. Things will change as the design matures and improvements are made.

 

Sanchez Site

The Sanchez site is everything South West of Remodias Ave and is the current staging area for the Cryoshell. In the past, this site was also the assembly and staging area for the Orbital Launch Tower segments. These segments would then be rolled out to the Launch Complex and lifted onto the Tower in calm conditions.

RGV Aerial Photography on Twitter: "Integration Tower assembly at the  Sanchez Site. *Two more Integration Tower segments will be assembled on the  top left of the image… https://t.co/43QQ2pvE1p"

Orbital Tower sections assembled at the Sanchez site. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography

 

In the future, the Sanchez site is expected to be the fuel production site that supports orbital launches from Boca Chica. Elon Musk’s companies are known for being vertically integrated, and with the development of Starship, it is expected that SpaceX will move into making its propellant to further reduce the costs of launch. 


The fuel production plant will focus on the two propellants needed by Starship, Liquid Oxygen, and Liquid Methane. SpaceX chose these propellants due to the ability to be able to produce them on Mars, allowing for return trips of future Starships. Currently, only the liquid oxygen plant is partially assembled at the production site. It’s not known how much more work is left to do until operations can begin. 


The methane production plant is not yet installed, although as the final Cryoshells roll out to be installed, it is expected that we’ll see development begin shortly after.

Image

Rings are created at the Sanchez site. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography

 

 The final element of the Sanchez Site is a 12MW Natural Gas Power plant that will provide the high amount of energy needed for the production of the propellant. Similar to the Liquid Oxygen production, it is not clear how much of the plant is complete. Operations have not yet started, but are expected to begin within the next 12 months as SpaceX looks to start orbital flights from Starbase. 


Similar to the final word about the Shipyard, it is important to remember that these processes and production decisions may change without warning.

 

Boca Chica Village

Before Starbase, the local area was referred to as Boca Chica (as per the name of State Highway 4: Boca Chica Boulevard). This small, sleepy retirement village was home to less than 50 people before SpaceX started initial work to operate the Falcon 9 family of vehicles from a launch pad near the beach.

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Boca Chica Village. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography

 

Now it’s a busier village with more and more SpaceX employees living and working close to the build site. The village itself is now mostly owned by SpaceX, rented to employees (including Elon Musk), and slowly expanding as required. Repaved roads, new stormwater infrastructure, a local solar panel farm, restaurant, and other amenities have been installed.

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The solar farm and satellite dishes at Boca Chica. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography

 

One of the most iconic locations of the village is now the Mars Pathfinder caravan park. This is where a lot of employees live in Airstream campers, creating an atmosphere not dissimilar to the Apollo Era at the Cape. At the time of writing, newer prefab homes are being built on Esperson street, and even a new home has been physically moved to a new location on the street. It should be noted though, that many workers still drive in from Brownsville and the surrounding areas. 

RGV Aerial Photography on Twitter: "SpaceX Airstream resort. 🌴 08/27  #Bocachica #spacex (2300ft msl)… "Airstream trailers cover the Mars Pathfinder park. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography

 

The other major feature of the village is the storage facility for SpaceX. This is where the solar farm is located, as well as two ex-NASA satellite dishes that are used to collect data from vehicles during testing and flights. The storage facility is also home to a lot of the infrastructure that SpaceX will need within the next few weeks. Propellant pipes, components for Starship and Boosters have been spotted within the site. 



The Launch Complex


Finally, it’s time to cover the Launch Complex, the current focus for all things Starship. This is where the majority of the work is currently underway as SpaceX moves from a suborbital test campaign of the Starship vehicle to the orbital test campaign of the full stack. This is going to involve an expected 5 test flights of both a booster and ship that will test critical elements of the system including the re-entry tiles of the ship. 

There are two major segments of the launch complex: The Suborbital launch site and the Orbital Launch Site. The Suborbital Launch Site is to the west of the overall complex and is where all of the testings for the Starship vehicle have taken place. Consisting of two launch stands (Pad A and Pad B) and a smaller suborbital tank farm, this side of the complex is now expected to be the future location for all verification tests for Starships before an orbital flight.

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Fully stacked Starship sits on the launch mount at Starbase Texas. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography


The Orbital Side of the Launch Complex is where the magic is going to happen. There are multiple important elements to cover here, and the majority of Starbase news over the next 12 months will be focused on this area. 


The most striking element of the Orbital Launch Side is of course the Orbital Launch Integration Tower. The OLIT is the tower that will provide propellant and stabilization to the full Ship and Booster stack during launch times through the Quick Disconnect Arm. The first part of this arm was recently installed on the tower, however, there are still more parts to go.

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Orbital Launch Tower. Photo: Elon Musk

 

In the future, the tower will also support a system that is currently called Mechazilla, named after the robotic version of Godzilla from the original Toho films. This system will catch the Booster and the Ship from mid-air, using two arms that will come together, similar to chopsticks. The system will also be able to place boosters and ships onto the Orbital Launch Mount, acting in place of a crane. 


One possible Mechazilla animation from the community. Source: TijnM

 

The Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) is where the stack will sit. This structure sits upon 6 extremely strong and thick concrete pillars that have been reinforced to support the 370-tonne mount. When the full stack is being supported by the mount, the expected weight on the structure is around 5000 tonnes, so a lot of work has been done to make sure that the mount is ready. The Mount itself has the deluge system (a type of water system used to reduce noise and vibrations) built into the mount already.

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OLM with arrows showing water deluge system. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography

 

The final piece of the puzzle is the Orbital Fuel Farm. This will hold enough propellant and other required consumables to support orbital launches and testing. The Orbital Launch Fuel Farm consists of one water tank for the deluge system, and an unknown mix of Liquid Oxygen (LOX), Methane (CH4), and Liquid Nitrogen Tanks (LN2). 

ImageTank Farm Layout. Photo: RGVAerialPhotography 

 

This article was last updated in September of 2021. Things are constantly changing at Starbase, but we will try to keep this guide as up-to-date as possible.

 

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Starbase Brewing is not affiliated, associated, authorized, endorsed by, or in any way officially connected with SpaceX, or any of its subsidiaries or its affiliates. We are huge fans, though.

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