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SpaceX’s focus shifts from Starship hops to the first near-orbital flight

Capitalism in space: Work at SpaceX’s Boca Chica spaceport in Texas has now definitely shifted away from doing Starship short hops, focusing instead on the first near-orbital flight using both Starship and Superheavy.

Not only is almost all recent work at Boca Chica centered on building the orbital launchpad with its tower for Superheavy, the company has apparently decided to end development of Starship prototypes 15-19, designed for hops only.

The fate of Starship SN15, following its milestone success with a smooth test flight and landing last month, is still unknown. It is likely awaiting preparations to go on display at Starbase. It is already sitting on display stands.

SN16 continues to reside in the High Bay, all but ready for rollout to the suborbital pad. However, that appears increasingly unlikely, as SpaceX focuses on the upcoming orbital attempt from the launch site next door to where SN15 completed its momentous test.

SN17’s fate is known, with sections of what was to become that Starship now observed as being scrapped at the Production Site.

Meanwhile, SN20’s aft dome [intended for orbit] has also been spotted by Mary (@bocachicagal), sporting three mounts for RVacs, indicating SN20 may be the first Starship to fly with both sea level and vacuum optimized engines.

All signs continue to suggest that orbital test flight will occur before the end of the summer.

Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.


  • V-Man

    Makes sense — SpaceX already know the “drop/rotate/land” method works, and they’ll get to practice it anyway on orbital returns. No point wasting further time/effort, especially since orbital flights can take up mass to self-finance the testing (like F9 did).

  • Exceptional animation of the forthcoming SpaceX Superheavy-Starship test flight (hat tip: Rand Simberg).

  • Jeff Wright

    There were no hop tests with the vac raptors in place that I am aware of. Even if weights were in their place, the airflow may be different, even if the center of gravity is a bit lower…which may aid the flip.

  • Edward

    V-Man wrote: “Makes sense — SpaceX already know the ‘drop/rotate/land’ method works, and they’ll get to practice it anyway on orbital returns. No point wasting further time/effort, especially since orbital flights can take up mass to self-finance the testing (like F9 did).

    These make sense. However, SpaceX seems to be keeping SN16 intact and protected indoors, suggesting to me that they plan to use it for additional “drop/rotate/land” tests after the first Super Heavy test flight from the orbital launch pad.

    To begin revenue flights, they will need the cargo Starship with the clamshell fairing. They don’t seem to be constructing one of those, yet, so revenue flights are likely not to start for a little while. Perhaps next year.

    Because so many Raptor engines are needed for each Super Heavy/Starship, I expect that SpaceX will soon switch from expending its orbital or near-orbital test units to recovering them for reuse, or at least engine reuse, on future flights.

    Meanwhile, I have been trying to imagine how they plan to load 100 tons into a Starship of similar weight, with half of a nosecone open and hanging off to one side, possibly moving the center of mass off the centerline, but hopefully not farther than the landing feet, otherwise the Starship will lose balance and tip over. Unless SpaceX has a special stand for loading these Starships, the landing feet under the clamshell will have to be strong enough to hold up under the off-center weight. On the other hand, if the top of the clamshell is held by a crane, then the balance may move in the opposite direction, which may help in loading the payload.

    A payload cannot be loaded straight in, because the other half of the nosecone is in the way. To load the payload may require that the mount point be movable to be off the centerline so that a crane (payloads are often mounted to rockets with cranes) can lower it in place, but that could cause Starship to tip over, too, before the payload — and the center of mass — can move back to the centerline. It seems to me that it is a puzzle of balance and reach. I’m sure SpaceX has ideas and is testing them on models.

    The sooner that Starship becomes operational, the sooner people will be able to use it for inexpensive construction of space stations and inexpensive exploration of space, and the sooner another company will get the idea that they can make their own rocket that is even more competitive. In their rush to get Starship developed, SpaceX has left plenty of room for improvement.

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