SpaceX successfully test fires all six engines on Starship prototype #24

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday successfully completed for the first time an eight-second-long static fire test of all six engines on Starship prototype #24.

I have embedded video of the test below. The amount of power exhibited is quite impressive. In fact, it was so powerful it likely melted the concrete below the rocket, sending hot debris flying that caused a major brushfire.

Most likely, eight long seconds of blast-furnace conditions melted the top layer of surrounding concrete and shot a hailstorm of tiny superheated globules in almost every direction. Indeed, in almost every direction there was something readily able to burn, a fire started. In several locations to the south and west, brush caught fire and began to burn unusually aggressively, quickly growing into walls of flames that sped across the terrain. To the east, debris even made it into a SpaceX dumpster, the contents of which easily caught fire and burned for hours.

Eventually, around 9pm CDT, firefighters were able to approach the safed launch pad and rocket, but the main fire had already spread south, out of reach. Instead, they started controlled burns near SpaceX’s roadblock, hoping to clear brush and prevent the fire (however unlikely) from proceeding towards SpaceX’s Starbase factory and Boca Chica Village homes and residents.

The rocket itself came though the test unscathed, a major milestone on the path to its first orbital flight.

During a launch, the rocket would have quickly lifted off, and thus caused far less stress to the concrete on the ground. Nonetheless, this test suggests SpaceX needs to do more pad preparation for any tests of Superheavy prototype #7, which has 33 engines at its base.

» Read more

More static fire tests of Starship/Superheavy expected this week

SpaceX appears to be gearing up for more engine tests of both Superheavy prototype #7 and Starship prototype #24 this week, having called for road closures at Boca Chica today with additional options thoughout the week.

The article at the link mostly provides an overview of the changes in both stages that occurred because of the shift from the first version of the Raptor engine to the much more streamlined Raptor-2. The side-by-side image of both versions is quite revealing, showing once again how much SpaceX adheres to Musk’s adage that “the best part is no part.” Raptor-2 is astonishingly simpler and more compact, even though it produces about 25% more power.

SpaceX remounts Superheavy prototype #7 on launchpad

Superheavy #7 lifted onto launchpad

Capitalism in space: Using its giant launch tower crane that Elon Musk has dubbed Mechazilla, SpaceX engineers yesterday remounted the seventh Superheavy prototype onto the orbital launchpad in preparation for more engine tests leading to its first flight.

Booster 7 has been atop this launch mount before. Earlier this month, SpaceX conducted two “static fire” tests with Booster 7, firing the vehicle up while it remained attached to the mount.

Both of those tests — which occurred on Aug. 9 and Aug. 11, respectively — lit up just a single Raptor engine (apparently, a different one each time). And Booster 7 wasn’t fully outfitted at the time, sporting just 20 of its 33 engines (opens in new tab) (the vast majority of which stayed dormant during the tests).

After the Aug. 11 test, SpaceX lifted the Super Heavy prototype off the mount and hauled it back to a processing bay at Starbase. Technicians installed the remaining 13 Raptors and got it ready for Tuesday’s move back to the pad.

The picture above was sent out by Musk on his Twitter feed. Note the number of engines at the base. The tower itself, acting as a crane, has also simplified and speeded up operations. SpaceX can now quickly move the rocket back and forth from the assembly building, without the need of separate cranes.

The company is still targeting early September for the first orbital launch, though it also still needs to stack Starship prototype #24 (seen in the background) on top of Superheavy, and then do more tests.

Environmentalists opposed to Starship at Boca Chica appeal dismissal of their lawsuit

Environmentalists from the Sierra Club and one Texas Indian tribe have now appealed the dismissal of their lawsuit aimed at blocking further tests or launches of Starship and Superheavy by SpaceX at its Boca Chica facility.

The Sierra Club and the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of South Texas jointly appealed the 445th District Court’s decision July 7 to dismiss a lawsuit concerning SpaceX testing of its next-generation Starship vehicle closing nearby Boca Chica Beach, the coalition said July 28. In the dismissal, Judge Gloria Rincones argued there is “no private right of enforcement” concerning the beach access, according to KRGV.com (opens in new tab). The dismissal took place over the appellants’ protests that closing the beach violates the Texas state constitution, along with access rights by traditional groups.

The Sierra Club’s Brownsville organizer, Emma Guevara, stated the appeal is taking place because the beach is closed weekly to allow “a billionaire [to] launch deadly rockets near homes and wildlife.”

Citing a fireball that briefly and unexpectedly engulfed Starship during testing July 12, Guevera said her family was “forced” to hear the noise, which “launched without any warning for the public.” [emphasis mine]

My my, what a horror! I suppose everyone must stop what they are doing because Guevera and his family might be inconvenienced. And who cares if the lawsuit prevents thousands of south Texas citizens from having jobs and a thriving economy? It is more important Guevera doesn’t have to hear loud noises.

The lawsuit claims that allowing SpaceX to periodically close access to the nearest beach violates the state’s constitution, despite laws passed by both the local and state legislatures allowing for these closures.

Our oppressive federal government really does want to squash SpaceX

Targeted by the government for destruction
Targeted by the government for destruction

In order to understand the full context of the FAA’s environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility in Texas and its approval of Starship/Superheavy launches there, it is important to take a closer look at the entire document [pdf] that was released on June 13, 2022. While that approval will now allow SpaceX to proceed, the nature of the document shows us that this government permission has been given very reluctantly, and that there are factions in the federal bureaucracy that are working hard to lay the groundwork to block it at first opportunity.

First, what did the reassessment conclude about the impact of future heavy-lift rocket launches at Boca Chica?

In summary, the FAA concluded that SpaceX’s planned operations “would not result in significant environmental consequences.” [emphasis mine] It then proceeded to provide many pages of analysis for each of the following issues, with almost all coming to the same exact conclusion [emphasis mine]:
» Read more

FAA finally releases its environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility

SpaceX's plan of operations at Boca Chica

After almost a half year of delays, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today released its environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s operations in Boca Chica, Texas, possibly recommending that future launches of Starship/Superheavy be allowed at that location but also leaving open the continuing ability of the federal government to block further flight tests.

The FAA determined that the Proposed Action would not result in significant environmental consequences and has issued a Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact/Record of Decision (FONSI/ROD). … Required mitigation measures are listed throughout Chapter 3 of the final PEA [the environmental reassessment]. Should any future license or permit be issued to SpaceX to perform any aspect of the Proposed Action, the FAA will ensure that SpaceX implements these mitigation measures as conditions for licensure.

You can read the executive summary here [pdf]. The actual reassessment [referred to as the PEA] can be read here [pdf]. The key quote, on page 2 of the reassessment, is this:

The applicant has provided the FAA with a mission profile of proposed launch operations that is
analyzed in this PEA. The FAA’s Federal Action is to issue experimental permit(s) and/or a vehicle operator license to SpaceX for this mission profile, which is described in more detail in Section 2.1. If SpaceX modifies or adds operations as part of its Starship/Super Heavy program in the future, the FAA would analyze the environmental impacts of those activities in a tiered environmental document, which would summarize the issues discussed in this PEA that remain applicable (e.g., the environment around the Boca Chica launch site) and concentrate on the issues specific to the subsequent action (e.g., a mission profile involving a new landing site).

The completion of the environmental review process does not guarantee that the FAA will issue an experimental permit or vehicle operator license to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy launches at the launch site. [emphasis mine]

Essentially, SpaceX — after some revisions based on public comments — provided the FAA a detailed outline of its proposed operations, as summarized by the graph above (taken from the executive summary), and the FAA agreed to that program. However, this agreement by the FAA does not include any actual permits for flights or tests.

Furthermore, this recommendation by the FAA is not final. The reassessment also included in great detail a second option, dubbed the “No Action Alternative”:

Under the No Action Alternative, the FAA would not issue new experimental permits or licenses to SpaceX for any test or launch operations at the Boca Chica Launch Site. In this situation, SpaceX’s production and manufacturing that that do not require a license from the FAA or approval by any other federal agencies would continue at its existing facilities and production and manufacturing infrastructure would expand. Testing operations, including tank tests and static fire engine tests, that do not require approval by the FAA or other federal agencies would also continue at the VLA. In addition, SpaceX could conduct missions of the Starship prototype launch vehicle as authorized by the current license (LRLO 20‐119). 6 The license expires on May 27, 2023. This alternative provides the basis for comparing the environmental consequences of the Proposed Action.

Under this alternative, SpaceX operations at Boca Chica would be severely limited, and would essentially end in May ’23.

In reviewing both documents, it appears that the FAA has given SpaceX a go-ahead with this reassessment, but done so with many caveats. It will issue SpaceX its launch permits, probably on a per launch basis, each of which will require SpaceX to meet more than 130 pages of further environmental and social justice requirements. As noted in the first quote above, should SpaceX fail to meet any of those mitigation measures, future permits will be blocked.

Furthermore, the reassessment appears to have left it open for the White House to choose the “No Action Alternative.”

In either case this reassessment appears to have given any number of agencies within the federal government — including the White House — the clear ability to block SpaceX’s operations repeatedly, after each test flight.

I suspect SpaceX will immediately apply for a launch permit, and hope that political pressure will force the federal agencies to approve that permit.

NOTE: This analysis is based on a first quick review. The documents are long and purposely written to make it hard to figure out what is being proposed. More review is still required.

Woman arrested for trespassing at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility

A Pittsburgh woman, Nivea Rose Parker, 20, was arrested on June 1, 2022 while trespassing at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility.

SpaceX security personnel informed deputies a woman, later identified as Parker, was roaming around the fifth floor of the High Bay #1 building. Parker claimed to be an employee of SpaceX and wanted to speak to Elon Musk, security said. [emphasis mine]

Very little additional information has been made available. However, that Parker could get so far into one building, where rockets are assembled, is quite worrisome, considering the “hate Musk” campaign that is growing on the left. These people willfully riot and bomb facilities. SpaceX must take this trespass as a warning that worst could happen if it doesn’t tighten security at all its facilities, especially Boca Chica.

FAA once again delays approval for launching Starship from Boca Chica

Capitalism in space: The FAA today announced that it is once again delaying release of its environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility in Texas, setting a new release date only two weeks hence.

The FAA intended to release the Final PEA on May 31, 2022. The FAA now plans to release the Final PEA on June 13, 2022 to account for ongoing interagency consultations. A notice will be sent to individuals and organizations on the project distribution list when the Final PEA is available.

The previous five delays had each been month-long. This two week delay strongly suggests that the bureaucrats are getting close to a final agreement. Whether that means SpaceX will receive an approval, which is what the initial draft had suggested back in December, or be blocked, we shall have to see. A statement SpaceX CEO Gwynne Shotwell in mid-May that the company would be ready to launch Starship by June suggests it will be an approval.

I have been predicting since December that the month-by-month delays would continue until after the November election. I will be quite happy if that prediction ends up wrong.

Environmentalists sue local Boca Chica officials for closing beaches for SpaceX

Muskhate: The Sierra Club and other environmental groups have now sued a variety of local Boca Chica government agencies for periodically closing the beaches during hazardous SpaceX operations.

The Sierra Club, the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas and non-profit Save RGV have joined together in a lawsuit against the Texas General Land Office, Texas land commissioner George P. Bush and Cameron County in Texas for closing Boca Chica Beach periodically for SpaceX operations during Starship tests, the Sierra Club stated May 5. The Boca Chica beach is near SpaceX’s Starbase facility, where it is building Starship rocket prototypes and their massive Super Heavy boosters.

“Restricting access to a public beach, as the defendants have done, violates the Texas constitution,” the Sierra Club said in a statement. None of the allegations have been proven in court, and the statement does not name SpaceX among the entities pursued in the lawsuit.

These are the same groups that have been lobbying government officials for the past few years to shut SpaceX down. They claim that a change to the state’s laws allowing these closures that was passed in 2013 violates the state’s constitution, and want the courts to agree.

Of course, we all know these organizations really have no interest in keeping the beaches open for public use. What they really want is to shut down SpaceX in Boca Chica, because that company is actually doing something exciting and innovative while bringing billions of investment capital to the Rio Grand Valley, including tens of thousands of new jobs. (The group called “Save RGV” is especially ironic and dishonest, since RGV stands for Rio Grand Valley. If their effort succeeded, they would not save RGV, but destroy it. All those jobs and billions would vanish, leaving the area as depressed and as poor as it has been now for decades.)

These groups also wish to destroy Elon Musk, because he has recently made it clear that he no longer is a knee-jerk supporter of all leftist causes.

Nor will their effort cease should they lose this case in court. They will do what environmental groups have done now for decades, find another minor legal issue and sue again, and again, and again, and again.

Part 2 of Elon Musk’s most recent tour of Starbase

Looking up from the bottom of the tower
Looking up from the bottom of the tower

Looking down from the top of the tower
Looking down from the top of the tower

Tim Dodd of Everyday Astronaut has now posted part two of his long and most recent tour of Starbase at Boca Chica with Elon Musk. This section is 33 minutes long, and takes us to the top of the new orbital launch tower that SpaceX will use to launch Starship and Superheavy, as well as eventually catch Superheavy upon its return.

Part 1 can be viewed here.

The two images to the right are screen captures from today’s tour.

I have embedded Part 2 below. It has the following interesting take-aways:

  • Musk: “At SpaceX, we specialize in converting the impossible into late.”
  • Musk and his engineers spent several minutes describing in detail how the tower’s chopsticks will work in conjunction with Superheavy as it comes down and the chopsticks grab it.
  • Musk also provided some details about the Starlink-2 satellites, explaining that it is impractical to launch them on Falcon 9, and thus Starship must become operational to fly them.
  • The tour not only stopped near the top of the tower to get a close look at the attachment points for the chopsticks, it went to the tower’s top, at 469 feet in the air, 106 feet taller than the Saturn-5 rocket.
  • In discussing how the economy is not zero sum, Musk revealed why he is at heart a conservative, and is slowly finding this out. That he still leaves out that forgotten word that makes this all possible, freedom, shows his journey is not quite complete.
  • Musk also added his thoughts on the importance of making human civilization multi-planetary. For him, it is really a question of survival.

» Read more

Elon Musk gives another tour of Starbase

Tim Dodd of Everyday Astronaut has posted another 44 minute long interview with Elon Musk that took place as Musk gave him a recent tour at Boca Chica, walking around the base of the Starship and Superheavy boosters being prepared for that first orbital launch.

I have embedded the interview below. It has the following interesting take-aways:

  • In describing their decision to eliminate completely a separate attitude thrust system for Starship and instead use the fuels in the main tanks using controllable vents, Musk once again demonstrated his engineering philosophy that “the best part is no part.”
  • The company is definitely planning to test the deployment of some Starlink satellites on that first orbital test flight.
  • Musk once again emphasized that there is a high expectation that this first orbital flight will fail, but they are unbothered by this because this first ship is considered a prototype anyway that must be redesigned. Whether it completes its flight or not, the flight will tell them what needs to be done for future iterations.
  • They are aiming with Starship to reduce to cost to bring a ton to the surface of Mars from $1 billion to $100K. Musk called this improvement “insane” but entirely possible.
  • Musk also noted how the design of Starship is not like a plane, which wants to develop lift. Starship instead is designed to fall, but do so as “draggy” as possible. The goal is to shed as much velocity as possible, as soon as possible.

Dodd also notes this video is the first of a new series.
» Read more

SpaceX CEO: Starship could launch as early as June

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s CEO and president Gwynne Shotwell revealed today that Starship could be ready for its orbital test flight from Boca Chica as early as June, though government regulatory obstacles make that launch more likely three to six months from now.

It appears that the delays in getting FAA approval for launch have not been the only issues that have delayed that first launch attempt. Though SpaceX would have likely tried a launch months ago with earlier prototypes had the approval arrived as originally promised, that launch would have likely failed based on ground tests the company has been doing during the delay.

When Musk tweeted his “hopefully May” estimate, SpaceX was nowhere close to finishing the Starship – Ship 24 – that is believed to have been assigned to the orbital launch debut. However, SpaceX finally accelerated Ship 24 assembly within the last few weeks and ultimately finished stacking the upgraded Starship on May 8th. A great deal of work remains to truly complete Ship 24, but SpaceX should be ready to send it to a test stand within a week or two. Even though the testing Ship 24 will need to complete has been done before by Ship 20, making its path forward less risky than Booster 7’s, Ship 24 will debut a number of major design changes and likely needs at least two months of testing to reach a basic level of flight readiness.

A more likely launch date is probably late July at the earliest, though of course that will also depend on the government’s approval, something that presently appears difficult to get.

Fish & Wildlife documents now reveal its objections to SpaceX Boca Chica facility

We’re here to help you! Documents obtained by CNBC under a Freedom of Information request have revealed the specific objections of Fish & Wildlife that has helped delay the approval of the FAA’s environment reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility for Starship launches.

SpaceX must take steps to track and mitigate its impact on endangered species and their habitat in order to gain approvals for testing and commercial launches of its Starship Super Heavy lift-launch vehicle in Boca Chica, Texas, according to documents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service obtained by CNBC.

The documents, released by the federal agency in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, show that recent declines in an endangered bird species, the piping plover, have already been correlated with SpaceX activity at the South Texas facility.

The documents also reveal that SpaceX is, for now at least, reducing the amount of energy it plans to generate at a utility-sized natural gas power plant on the 47.4-acre launch site there.

According to a lawyer from the radical environmentalist organization the Center for Biological Diversity who was interviewed for the article, Fish & Wildlife’s demands are not tremendously restrictive, and might actually allow the project to go forward, since they appear to only require SpaceX to “monitor affected animal populations carefully, limit construction and launch activity to specific seasons or times of day and night, and use shuttles to reduce vehicle traffic of workers on location.”

I see it differently. I think Fish & Wildlife bureaucrats are struggling to come up with reasons to block SpaceX. They know that decades of data in Florida prove that rocket launches have no negative impact on wildlife. To claim such a thing in Texas is thus not justified. They are trying to do it anyway.

Surprise! FAA delays SpaceX approval at Boca Chica another month

As I have been predicting now for months, the FAA today announced that it is once again delaying approval of its environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility one more month, to May 31, 2022.

This is the fifth time since December that the FAA has delayed the release of the environmental assessment. When the first delay was announced in December 2021, I predicted that this stone-walling by the government will likely continue for many months, and delay the first orbital launch of Starship “until the latter half of ’22, if then.”

Since then it has become very clear that the other federal bureaucracies at NOAA and Fish & Wildlife which must sign off on the approval are hostile to Elon Musk, SpaceX, and Starship, and are acting to block this approval, with this stone-walling having the unstated support of the Biden administration. When the third delay was announced at the end of February, I predicted no approval would ever occur, that the Biden administration wants to reject the reassessment and force the issuance of a new environmental impact statement, a process that could take years. To do this before the November election however will cost votes, so the administration would instead delay the approval month by month until November.

This prediction has been dead on right, unfortunately. Expect more month-by-month delays until November, when the Biden administration will then announce — conveniently just after the election — the need for a new impact statement requiring years of study.

The one hope to stop this government intransigence will be a complete wipe-out of the Democratic Party in Congress in those November elections. A strong Republican Congress with large majorities in both houses could quickly force the Biden administration to back down on many issues, including this effort to shut SpaceX down in Texas.

SpaceX goes full speed ahead on construction of Starship launchpad in Florida

Capitalism in space: Faced with regulatory delays caused by the Biden administration that are preventing further Starship launches from Boca Chica, SpaceX has accelerated construction of a new Starship launchpad at its facility in Florida.

Compared to SpaceX’s Starbase tower assembly [in Boca Chica], Florida Starship work appears to be proceeding at a similar pace. SpaceX began assembling the fourth Florida tower section about 30 days after starting the first, while Starbase took about 25 days to reach the same point. However, SpaceX does appear to be taking a slightly different approach for Pad 39A. On top of tower section assembly, SpaceX is constructing an extra four sets of the small concrete foundations and steel frames each tower section is assembled on, implying that Starship’s Florida launch tower could be almost entirely prefabricated before SpaceX begins to combine those sections.

Meanwhile, Boca Chica remains blocked. While the FAA says it will issue approval of its environment reassessment by the end of this month, SpaceX would be foolish to believe this. It has become very clear that the Biden administration has so far allowed the federal bureaucracy free rein to obstruct SpaceX. For the company to think things will suddenly change now is to be living a fantasy. It must move forward to satisfy its investors.

Worsening the situation in Texas was the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to suspend the permit process on a request by SpaceX to expand its Boca Chica facility. It appears SpaceX failed to provide the Corps some required information, possibility because the company sees no reason now to complete this expansion if the Biden administration is going to ban Starship launches from Texas.

Faced with this political situation, Texas governor Greg Abbott yesterday claimed he is fighting the stonewalling by the Biden administration, but provide no specifics:

“What I am going to do if Biden interferes with the ability of SpaceX to launch from Boca Chica; I am going to be working every step of the way to make sure that they are going to be able to launch from Boca Chica. We heard the vision from Mr. Patel himself about what they are working on and our job is to make sure they are able to achieve their vision. And I have worked with Elon Musk very closely with regard to Tesla and the Giga factory in Austin, Texas. And we will be working with him very closely, every step of the way in Boca Chica for the future of SpaceX. We want that future and that vision to come from Boca Chica, from Brownsville, Texas.”

Allow me to translate this political blather into plain English: “I can’t or won’t do anything, but I am now going to make a superficial claim of action so my Texas constituents won’t get angry at me.”

It appears more and more that the first orbital test flight of Starship will take place in Florida, not Texas. And if so, it will be delayed for at least another six months because of this government interference.

Update on SpaceX’s Starship/Superheavy operations at Boca Chica

Link here. Though the permitting process for launching Starship from Boca Chica is stalled or maybe even blocked, SpaceX is continuing to use this waiting time to upgrade and improve the design of both Starship and its giant booster, Superheavy, abandoning earlier prototypes for newer versions incorporating those upgrades.

[Superheavy] Booster 4 and [Star]Ship 20, having served as articles to test the ground systems and verify the major design outlines of booster and ship, have now been phased out, with Elon Musk confirming on Twitter that these wouldn’t perform the long-awaited orbital velocity test flight.

Instead, it is now expected that Booster 7 and Ship 24 will be the duo performing this duty. For that same reason, SpaceX cleared the way for Booster 7 by removing Booster 4 from the OLM on March 24.

The company has been doing tank tests and stack tests of these new prototypes at a fast pace, even as it is assembling even newer prototypes.

Breaking: Army Corp of Engineers suspends SpaceX’s Boca Chica permit process

We’re here to help you! According to this very short Bloomberg news report today, the Army Corp of Engineers has entirely suspended SpaceX’s Boca Chica permit process for expanding the facility.

The reason given is that SpaceX “failed to provide requested information.”

Though not yet confirmed, this permit appears to be separate from the environmental reassessment process being led by the FAA to approve Starship launches from Boca Chica. Instead, this appears to have an application to add an additional launchpad and other facilities to the site.

Assuming this distinction is true, then launches from Boca Chica of Starship might still be approved. The action however once again indicates the growing hostility to SpaceX within the federal bureaucracy, apparently aided and abetted by the Biden administration.

FAA again delays decision on environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility

Surprise, surprise! According to an FAA email sent out today, the agency has once again, for the fifth time, delayed its decision on the environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship launch site.

From the email:

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is updating the release date for the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) on the Federal Infrastructure Permitting Dashboard (Permitting Dashboard) and project website. The FAA plans to issue the Final PEA on April 29th. The planned April 29, 2022 release date will allow the FAA to review the Final PEA, including responses to comments, and complete consultation and coordination with agencies at the local, State, and Federal level. All consultations must be complete before the FAA can issue the Final PEA.

This date is now listed on the FAA’s SpaceX-Starship webpage. Nor is the decision a surprise. Expect the FAA to continue this charade month-to-month until after the November election, when the Biden administration will then feel free to block SpaceX’s effort in Boca Chica completely.

SpaceX switches to newer Starship and Superheavy for orbital test

Capitalism in space: According to Elon Musk, SpaceX has decided that the company will no longer use Starship prototype #20 and Superheavy prototype #4 for the rocket’s first orbital test flight.

Instead, the company will fly two more recently built and upgraded prototypes, rumored to be numbers #24 for Starship and #7 for Superheavy. The company has also decided to switch from the first generation Raptor engines to Raptor-2s.

All these changes likely explain Musk’s announcement that the first orbital launch will not happen sooner than May. The changes also further suggest that SpaceX has realized federal permission to launch from Boca Chica will be further delayed, and thus it might has well push forward in other ways as it waits for the right to launch.

I suspect that if the federal government hadn’t moved in to block operations, it would have flown prototypes 20 and 4 two months ago, just to get some data. Now such a flight seems pointless, as more advanced prototypes are now almost ready to fly.

This decision also reinforces my prediction that no orbital flights will occur out of Boca Chica before summer, and are more likely blocked through November. It also increases my expectation that the first orbital flight might not occur at all in Texas. The longer the Biden administration delays SpaceX’s operations there, the greater the chance the entire Starship/Superheavy launch program will shift to Florida.

Musk says Starship will be ready for first orbital launch in May

Capitalism in space: In a tweet yesterday Elon Musk said that Starship will be ready for first orbital launch in May, a delay of two months from his previous announcements.

“We’ll have 39 flightworthy engines built by next month, then another month to integrate, so hopefully May for orbital flight test,” Musk tweeted in response to CNBC.

While the delay could certainly be because the company needed to prepare enough Superheavy engines, I also suspect it is also because Musk now expects the FAA to not approve the environmental reassessment of Starship’s Boca Chica launch site by the end of March, as has been promised. I predict that sometime in the next few days the FAA will announce another one-month delay in that process, the fourth such delay by that federal agency.

In late-December, when the FAA announced the first delay, I predicted that the first orbital launch of Starship would not happen until the latter half of ’22. I now think that prediction was optimistic. I firmly believe the federal government, controlled by Democrats, will delay that launch until after the mid-term elections in November. It appears to me that the Biden administration wants to reject the environmental reassessment, which would block Starship flights from Boca Chica for years. It just doesn’t want to do it before November, because of the negative election consequences.

I truly hope my cynical and pessimistic analysis is utterly wrong. So far, however, my prediction has proven to be more right than wrong.

The world’s two biggest rockets move to their launchpads!

The real cost of SLS and Orion
The expected real per launch cost of SLS and Orion

The big news in the mainstream press today is the planned rollout from the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) of NASA’s SLS rocket this evening in preparation for its dress rehearsal fueling and countdown planned for April 3rd.

This article by Newsweek is very typical. It glows with facts lauding SLS’s gigantic size and the monumental systems designed to slowly transport it the four miles from the VAB to the launchsite.

At a height of 322 feet (ft), making it taller than the 305ft Statue of Liberty, the SLS will be the largest rocket to move to a launchpad since the Saturn V launched on its last mission in 1973, when it carried the Skylab space station into orbit around Earth. Its size has seen NASA dub it a Mega-Moon rocket.

NASA says that the four-mile journey from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the SLS was recently adorned with the NASA logo, will take between 6 and 12 hours. It will be carried on the back of NASA’s 6.6-million-pound crawler vehicle. [emphasis mine]

If that April 3rd countdown dress rehearsal goes well, SLS will be rolled back to the VAB and then prepped for its first launch, presently scheduled tentatively for May ’22, though more likely in June or July.

For NASA the rollout today is somewhat of a relief. SLS was originally supposed to launch in 2015, making it seven years behind schedule. It has also been enormously expensive, costing close to $30 billion to build, if one does not count the $20 billion cost of the Orion capsule it carries. That the agency finally has this rocket assembled and almost ready to launch, after so many delays and cost overruns, means that NASA might finally be able to prove it is a reality, not simply a boondoggle designed by Congress to funnel cash through NASA to their constituents.

The Newsweek article however strangely ignores the launchpad stacking of another equally gigantic rocket that occurred yesterday. » Read more

Local Texas state/city politicians pressure congressmen to get Starship approved by FAA

Local state/city politicians from Brownsville are applying pressure on their local congressmen to get the FAA to approve its environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Starship facility in Boca Chica approved.

Asked if the BND [Brownsville Navigation District] Board of commissioners had made its position known to Reps. Vela and Gonzalez, Lopez said: “Actually, right now, we are in talks with both of them. We want them to help. It is a huge economic impact, having SpaceX here. It makes the Rio Grande Valley and in this case Brownsville more lucrative. It gives global attention to our city, which is something we have needed for a long, long, time.”

A reporter put it to Lopez that the City of Brownsville is hoping to attract thousands of tourists once SpaceX starts sending rockets to the Moon and Mars. “It would be a tremendous loss if we lose that,” Lopez said.

Both Congressmen are members of the Democratic Party, so I doubt seriously if they care that much for the economic benefits brought to Brownsville by SpaceX, no matter what they say in public. For Democrats nowadays it is environmental matters that trump all other issues, and so it would shock me if either Vela or Gonzalez buck their party’s agenda to pressure the FAA to approve the environmental reassessment.

However, the November elections are looming, and the polls do not look good for Democrats. If the FAA rejects the reassessment prior to that election and demands that a full environmental impact statement be written, something I now fear will happen because the FAA cannot get NOAA and the Interior Department to sign on, SpaceX will almost certainly shift its Starship operations to Florida. An impact statement would take years to complete, a delay that SpaceX cannot afford. Such a sequence of events would likely do great harm to the reelection campaigns of both Democrats.

I thus now wonder if the Biden administration will force the FAA to continue delaying its decision, month-by-month, until after that November election, thus allowing these Democrats to mouth support without risking anything.

We shall know I think before the end of the month, which is presently the FAA’s announced target date for making a decision. I am willing to bet they delay again, for the fourth time.

SpaceX begins filling methane tanks at Starship launchsite in Texas

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun the slow process of filling the storage tanks at its launchpad in Boca Chica with the methane that will be used by its Starship and Superheavy rocket once launched.

To fill the two existing tanks, which may store enough methane to fuel a stacked Starship and Super Heavy about 4/5ths of the way, SpaceX will need around 40-50 more tanker deliveries. Since last November, SpaceX has completed more than 320 liquid nitrogen and 200 liquid oxygen deliveries – equivalent to about 6700 tons (~14.8M lb) of LN2 [liquid nitrogen] and 4200 tons (~9.3M lb) of LOx [liquid oxygen]. If SpaceX maintains that average and focuses entirely on LCH4 [methane], the two horizontal tanks could be filled to the brim before the end of February.

Having a substantial amount of [methane] stored at the orbital tank farm will finally allow SpaceX to attempt the first major wet dress rehearsals (WDRs) and, more importantly, the first full static fires with flightworthy Super Heavy booster prototypes. Of course, a tank farm with full supplies of LOx, LCH4, LN2, and their gaseous equivalents is also a necessity for the first orbital Starship launch attempt, which has most recently slipped from a target of mid-2021 to no earlier than (NET) Q2 2022, pending regulatory approval.

The article also notes that the way SpaceX built two vertical methane tanks at the launchpad appears in violation of Texas regulations, and might either need a waiver from the state or be rebuilt in order to be used. Subsequently the company has added two horizontal tanks that conform to regulations, and it is these tanks it is now filling. More tanks however will have to be added to give it the fuel needed for launch.

FAA delays Starship approval again

Death by a thousand cuts: The FAA today announced that it is once again delaying the release of the final version of its environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility, the PEA, that will allow Starship orbital launches to occur there.

The FAA intended to release the Final PEA on February 28, 2022. The FAA now plans to release the Final PEA on March 28, 2022 to account for further comment review and ongoing interagency consultations.

Though the draft PEA had approved SpaceX future Starship operations at Boca Chica, all signs continue to point to heavy resistance to making that approval official both within the Biden administration as well as those other “interagency consultations.”

I predict that the FAA will delay again, and it will delay repeatedly month by month as agencies like Fish & Wildlife and NOAA refuse to go along. The only one who could break this deadlock would be President Biden, and the only chance he or any of the people running his administration will do so is if they decide to reject the FAA’s reassessment to instead demand a new and full environmental impact statement, which would likely take years to complete.

Texas politicians might want to wake up. If SpaceX fails to get this approval it will shift its Starship operations almost entirely to Florida. I must also add that politicians across the nation should wake up as well, because if the Biden administration blocks SpaceX, the many year delay for the launch of Starship will likely impact many many businesses nationwide. It will also negatively impact NASA’s effort to land humans on the Moon this decade.

Musk: “We need to seize the opportunity and do it as quickly as possible.”

Raptor engine
Raptor-1 on the left, Raptor-2 on the right

The headline quote above encapsulates the main philosophical point of Elon Musk’s presentation tonight in Boca Chica, Texas. Musk’s presentation was focused mostly at outlining the status of SpaceX’s Starship/Superheavy reusable heavy-lift rocket, but he started his talk stating his philosophical reasons for doing what he is doing.

It is his strong belief that in order to guarantee the survival of all life on Earth, we must colonize as many planets as possible. Musk’s quote above indicated his sense that this effort must be done now. As he had noted,

The window of opportunity [to build human settlements on other worlds] may be open for a long time, and I hope it is, but it may also be open for a short time. And this is the first point in the four and half billion history of Earth that it is possible.

He added, “To be frank, civilization is feeling a little fragile these days,” which makes achieving his goal quickly even more urgent.

After making this point, Musk then proceeded to outline what they’ve accomplished so far in building Starship/Superheavy, and what they hope to do in the coming years. Much of what Musk said was largely known, such as the size and power of Starship and its design. He did underline these important details:
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SpaceX stacks Starship on Superheavy on orbital launchpad

Starship mounted by tower on Superheavy

Capitalism in space: SpaceX for the first time used the giant arms on the launch tower at its Boca Chica orbital launchpad to stack Starship on top of Superheavy, with the fully stacked giant rocket to act as a backdrop to Elon Musk’s update on the project scheduled for airing tonight at 8 pm (Central).

You can see a time lapse of the several hour process here.

The use of a launch tower to stack a rocket is apparently a first, and provides solid evidence that SpaceX’s plan to catch Superheavy with that tower and put it on the ground has a chance of success.

SpaceX has not yet announced how Musk’s presentation will be aired, but when this information is available I will embed it on Behind the Black.

Texas grants $5 million grants to two spaceport regions

Texas today awarded $5 million grants to two spaceport regions, one in Houston and the other in Cameron County where SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility is located.

Governor Greg Abbott today announced Spaceport Trust Fund grant awards of $5,000,000 to the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corporation and $5,000,000 to the Houston Spaceport Development Corporation. Administered by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and Tourism, the Spaceport Trust Fund is a financial tool to support the development of infrastructure necessary for establishing a spaceport in the state of Texas. The 87th Legislature appropriated $10,000,000 in funds in fiscal year 2022 to provide grants, disbursed on a cost-reimbursement basis, to help support the creation of quality jobs and attract continuing investments that will strengthen the economic future of the state.

The money is obviously intended to help pay for things like roads and bridges and other various improvements required to handle the increased traffic and population brought to the locations because of the new spaceport activity.

One wonders, however, why Houston got as much as the Boca Chica area. As far as I know, there is no spaceport begin built near Houston. It houses the Johnson Space Center, but that handles activities prior to and after launch.

I suspect there was some politics involved. Abbott couldn’t award Boca Chica while ignoring Houston, especially because Houston’s importance in the space industry is presently declining as the industry moves from a government-run model (epitomized by the Johnson center) to a private commercial model (epitomized by SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility). Abbott probably felt obliged to send some support Houston’s way to avoid accusations that he is ignoring its increasingly problematic position.

FAA delays final approval of Starship environmental reassessment till Feb 28th

The FAA has now made it official and announced that the final approval of Starship environmental reassessment will not occur before the end of February, thus preventing any Starship orbital test flights until the spring, at the earliest.

As previously announced, the FAA had planned to release the Final PEA in on December 31, 2021. However, due to the high volume of comments submitted on the Draft PEA, discussions and consultation efforts with consulting parties, the FAA is announcing an update to the schedule. The FAA now plans to release the Final PEA on February 28, 2022.

When the rumors of a delay were first noted last week, I predicted that “Starship’s first orbital flight will not happen until the latter half of ’22, if then.” That prediction is now almost certainly confirmed.

Nor I am not confident the FAA’s environmental reassessment of SpaceX’s launch facility in Boca Chica will be ready even in February. The problem appears to be that the FAA needs to also get the approval of both NOAA and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife agencies, and both appear to be very hostile to SpaceX’s efforts.

In fact, this is beginning to look like the situation in Hawaii with the Thirty Meter Telescope. There protesters blocked the start of construction, and the government, controlled by Democrats, worked with those protesters to step by step keep that obstruction active and working. If so, SpaceX faces a very dangerous situation, as it appears the Biden administration is about to do the same thing to it.

Superheavy prototype #4 installed on orbital launchpad

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has now installed its fourth Superheavy prototype on the orbital launchpad at Boca Chica, with the possibility of the first static fire test of Superheavy possibly occurring in the next week or so.

Around 10am CST (UTC-6), SpaceX began retracting more than a dozen clamps that hold the 69m (~225 ft) tall Super Heavy – the largest booster ever built – to its transport and work stand. By 11:30am, Booster 4 was safely extracted from the stand and hovering above it as the lift team crossed their Ts and dotted their Is before proceeding. SpaceX’s newest Starbase crane then spun around and crawled a short distance to the orbital launch mount, where it lifted Booster 4 above the mount.

In a process that this particular Super Heavy prototype is thoroughly familiar with, SpaceX then very carefully lowered B4 down into the center of the donut-shaped orbital launch mount, where 20 separate clamps – each capable of deploying and retracting – form a support ring and giant hold-down clamp.

The booster has 29 Raptor engines total, with 20 in the outer ring, 8 in the inner ring, and 1 in the center. It will be quite amazing to watch all these engines finally fire and lift the entire rocket, with Starshp, off the launchpad.

As for the upcoming static fire tests, road closures have been announced starting today through the end of this week.

FAA targets finalizing Starship environmental report by end of year

The FAA today announced that it hopes to complete the permit process for SpaceX’s Starship operations at Boca Chica by the end of this year.

If you go to the link you will see a table that shows the agency’s overall plan. The table also suggests that extensions in the permitting process are also possible, though it appears the FAA is working now to avoid this.

I say excellent. I also say I will believe it when I see it. I want the FAA to show me my skepticism of this bureaucratic process is not justified. I want it to prove to me that there is no politics working in the background to slow the process.

Remember, after six months of work the FAA’s draft reassessment approved SpaceX’s Starship operations. To now delay or reject that approval will require a some heavy outside pressure, since the majority of the comments received by the the FAA during the comment period were favorable to the project.

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