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SpaceX installs 29 Raptor engines on Superheavy #4

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has now installed 29 Raptor engines on the fourth Superheavy prototype, intended to be the first to attempt an orbital launch, even as the company also prepares Starship prototype #20 for that flight.

In a marked increase to the already-impressive production cadence at SpaceX Starbase, it’s all hands on deck with Booster 4 and Ship 20 preparations ahead of the duo being sent to the launch site. Booster 4 was stacked on Sunday, with all 29 Raptors installed by Monday morning. While the orbital launch attempt is not imminent, the duo is expected to undergo a series of ground testing objectives, including multiple Static Fire tests for the booster. This will also provide time to complete the final elements of the Orbital Launch Site (OLS), from which the duo will conduct the milestone test flight.

Following a short ground testing campaign with Booster 3, which included cryo proofing and a three-engine Static Fire test, the focus is now on what will become the first integrated stack of a Super Heavy booster and a Starship vehicle. This is set to be achieved in double-quick time, following a call to arms from SpaceX to its workforce. This included the transportation of hundreds of workers from other sites in the country, as per a memo leaked on Facebook.

As predicted, SpaceX did not succeed in launching Superheavy/Starship on its first orbital test flight in August. However, as predicted the company is clearly pushing to attempt that flight before the end of the summer. Right now, based on the pace of operations, what has been accomplished, and what needs to be accomplished, I estimate that flight will likely occur sometime around late September to early October.

It also seems very obvious that SpaceX is trying very hard to beat SLS into orbit. If successful, it will underline most starkly the difference between free enterprise and government operations. The former got it done in about four years, for less than $6 billion. The latter has taken seventeen years, and about $60 billion, and has still not launched.

And even if SLS launches first, that contrast remains.


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  • pawn

    Somebody probably won a bet. This is the kind of thing that happens when you have a team that is chopping at the bit to prove themselves.

  • Skunk Bucket

    It’s probably too soon to say that “SpaceX did not succeed in launching Superheavy/Starship on its first orbital test flight in August,” but it’s a good bet that they won’t. (Typo, I know.) In any case, when they light this candle it’s going to be a whale of a show. I’m trying to figure out if it’s worth driving down to the Brownsville area from Colorado to watch the launch. It would definitely be something to tell the grandkids about (assuming that my kids ever get off their collective asses and give me any.)

  • Ray Van Dune

    Installing 29 of anything overnight is impressive, but hopefully installation is only the first steps in the process of qualifying a full booster flight-set of Raptor engines.

    Another thing… as valuable as Raptors are at this point, I’ll bet Elon is still noodling about how to avoid wasting 35 of them by soaking them in saltwater! The question boils down to how valuable strategically would it be to successfully (if partially) demo the system soon. even with the certainty of wasting a load of costly hardware?

    Well, if it all works, it’s a stunner. but if you add more risk to recover some engines you add more risk of a failure, perhaps a dangerous one that could set you back seriously. So my advice is grit your teeth and go forward with the plan, good buddy!

  • Jeff Wright

    I think no. 4 was just hexed: I saw a crane-thing in front of the the engine cluster in a picture.

    The lift crane-thing had these words on it:


  • Patrick Underwood

    Just use the FAA and its environmental impact assessment to ensure that Starship can’t fly before SLS. Problem solved!!

  • James Street

    “with all 29 Raptors installed by Monday morning.”

    Just another Monday morning at SpaceX.

    I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the team meetings led by Project Managers / Scrum Masters / What Ever where their business processes, manufacturing processes, etc are being developed. These people are creating from scratch new ways of doing things that any industry could profit from. Even the processes for developing new processes.

    I hope someone at SpaceX is documenting this. This is an MBA course that is actually applicable. The problem is that this is one of those things that must be caught, not taught. Once something like this is codified and tried to be implemented by bureaucrats it loses the magic.

  • Edward

    James Street wrote: “These people are creating from scratch new ways of doing things that any industry could profit from. Even the processes for developing new processes.

    The SpaceX team is not really developing new processes for engineering or R&D, they are using existing processes in an industry that has not been motivated to do this, before now.

    SpaceX has the motivation to go fast so does not worry as much about technical efficiency but concentrates on a combination rapid development and cost efficiency. The space industry has spent the past three quarters century looking for technical efficiencies at the expense of the exploration that they had intended their rockets to do. Time to market and cost have been low on the priority list.

    Musk is doing better as a chief engineer in the space industry than many degreed engineers have been. He has a larger view of the overall picture than many rocket scientists and engineers of the past have had. This is his strength. He is focused on the goal, space exploration now, rather than the means, technically efficient rockets.

    This means that SpaceX has left a lot of room for other companies to improve on the rockets that SpaceX uses. Bezos and Musk developed an amount of reusability, and Musk is going further in reusability. Others can improve on rocket weight and engine efficiency so that they can lift more tonnage into space, competing with SpaceX. Right now, Starship is supposed to lift as much tonnage into space as the Saturn V, but its first stage has twice the thrust and half again as much fuel efficiency than the Saturn first stage. Clearly, someone should be able to make a Starship-like rocket with Saturn V thrust, Starship efficiency, and take far more mass into orbit. If they can lighten up the structure by using composites rather than steel, then they should be able to do even better.

    Many people advocated reusability in the 1980s, Peter Diamandis set up the X-Prize to get reusability started, Burt Rutan showed that commercial companies could accomplish what only major nations had done before, and Bezos and Musk are showing how to make reusability an everyday reality.

    Look at that. In the past three decades, we have had at least four leaders in revolutionizing the space industry.

  • Mike Weyhrich

    I spoke to a friend who is retired aerospace engineer and he said that SpaceX’s great advantage over the systems of Atlas, Delta, Titan, etc. (which have produced great boosters) is that they accomplished reusability, landing boosters because they were able to start with a clean slate. No restraints from design/engineering architecture that started in the 50’s. Build resusability into it from the beginning.

  • MIke Weyhrich: Your friend’s theory might make sense, except that SpaceX did not design reusability into its Falcon 9, right from the beginning. They did not start incorporating the engineering needed to land that first stage until 2011, after the Falcon 9 had already completed six successful flights. Similarly, they didn’t start trying to recover fairings until only about 3 or 4 years ago. These efforts at reusability involved redesigning Falcon 9 to make them work.

  • Edward

    Mike Weyhrich and Robert,
    To be fair, Falcon 9 underwent a number of incremental changes in order to make it reusable as well as to make it suitable for use as Falcon Heavy. On the other hand, several changes were made to increase performance, including the use of supercooled propellants. How much could have been saved by making this design the first time, and could SpaceX have survived the delay for “perfection?” (Spoiler alert! No, SpaceX could not have lasted that long. The company needed to start revenue service in order to stay alive. I believe we lost other companies due to lack of business, too.)

    I suspect that Mike’s engineer friend means that the Falcon was a fresh design, one that didn’t preclude the kinds of improvements that were on the minds of the SpaceX engineers. The 1960s heritage rockets were designed more for the ability to incorporate incremental technical improvements rather than implement revolutionary improvements that dramatically change operations.

    SpaceX was and is adamant about reducing the cost of access to space, and they knew that their first try could not make a dramatic difference. Their fresh design allowed for the ability to make major changes to operations even after it was a tried-and-true operational rocket. They clearly wanted to have the ability to be flexible in the future, but the heritage rockets either didn’t have this ability or the engineers did not take advantage of the ability.

    I would say that the early rocket scientists and engineers lacked imagination, but their problem solving and the lunar orbit rendezvous option prove that they were very imaginative. There were many ideas floating around for things to do with the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn rockets. Imagination was abundant in the 1960s.

    So if it wasn’t the engineers, then who was stifling creativity?

    I’m going to blame those in charge of the funding. To paraphrase The Right Stuff, there were no bucks, so there was no Buck Rogers. The ideas of the 1960s reverted back to dreams in the 2000s. We now have people who are forward thinkers, and they now are able to get the bucks form more interested parties. Buck Rogers is not so far away, anymore.

  • James Street



    From Elon Musk:

    “I think manufacturing is underrated and design is overrated. So people generally think that this Eureka moment of like you come up with this idea and that’s it, now it’s good. But the design like this, literally a thousand %, maybe 10,000% more work that goes into the production system than the thing itself. So say like how much effort we put into say designing Raptor versus designing the manufacturing system, it’s 10 to 100 times more effort to design the manufacturing system than the engine…. Basically the amount of effort that goes into the design rounds down to zero. Relative to the amount of effort that goes into the manufacturing system.”
    – Elon Musk, 3:50

  • Edward

    James Street,
    I have heard Musk say something similar, but the discussion is not about the manufacturing of launch vehicles but about the design and operation.

    Creating a manufacturing facility and determining efficient and effective operations for that facility are indeed non-trivial, but what has been missing for more than half a century is the improvement upon the vehicle designs. No new design, no new manufacturing facility or methods.

    The complexity, effort, and funds that must go into a new facility (manufacturing and test) are small compared to the new business that can be found with less expensive access to space. The problem was a lack of interest by the right people to reduce the cost of access.

    Mike Weyhrich’s engineer friend is correct. SpaceX started fresh, but any of the other companies could have started fresh, too. There wasn’t the will among them, however, because their major customer wasn’t fussy about launch costs. SpaceX’s original target customers were clamoring for lower launch costs since before 1990, but the heritage companies weren’t listening to them.

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