SpaceX conducts successful static fire test of Superheavy

SpaceX today successful completed a 13-second static fire test of its Superheavy first stage booster at Boca Chica, Texas.

I have embedded the video of the test below, cued to just before ignition. The test fired eleven of the booster’s 33 engines, and appeared to go very smoothly.

The company is still moving steadily towards an orbital launch of Superheavy and Starship before the end of the year.

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Superheavy prototype #7 undergoes 14 engine static fire test

SpaceX’s seventh prototype of its Superheavy first stage booster — intended to launch its Starship orbital craft on the first orbital flight — successfully completed a 10-second static fire test of 14 of its 33 engines yesterday.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. It shows the burn repeatedly from different angles. It appears the engine test went exactly as planned, with no subsequent fires near the launch pad.

According to the article at the link, this test fire, even with only 14 engines, made this Superheavy booster the most powerful rocket on Earth, at least until tonight when NASA’s SLS launches. Once this booster fires all of its 33 Raptor-2 engines however it will then exceed SLS in power. That it hasn’t launched however makes this claim a little overstated.

Regardless, SpaceX continues to move quite smoothly towards that first orbital launch of Starship, which the company hopes to do before the end of the year.
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Dennis Tito signs deal to fly on 2nd manned Starship mission around Moon

Capitalism in space: Dennis Tito, the first tourist to fly in space and now 82-years-old, has signed a deal with SpaceX for both him and his wife Akiko to fly on 2nd manned Starship mission around Moon.

His weeklong moonshot — its date to be determined and years in the future — will bring him within 125 miles (200 kilometers) of the lunar far side. He’ll have company: his wife, Akiko, and 10 others willing to shell out big bucks for the ride.

Tito won’t say how much he’s paying; his Russian station flight cost $20 million.

The couple recognize there’s a lot of testing and development still ahead for Starship, a shiny, bullet-shaped behemoth that’s yet to even attempt to reach space. “We have to keep healthy for as many years as it’s going to take for SpaceX to complete this vehicle,” Tito said in an interview this week with The Associated Press. “I might be sitting in a rocking chair, not doing any good exercise, if it wasn’t for this mission.”

The bottom line is that this deal, combined with the two other passenger Starship deals SpaceX has already signed, demonstrates that there is a solid market for Starship, even before its first launch. Expect that market to boom once the rocket begins operations.

SpaceX fully stacks Starship/Superheavy in preparation for launch

Starship about to be stacked on Superheavy
Starship about to be stacked on Superheavy, using
the launch tower’s chopstick arms. Click for full image.

For the first time in six months SpaceX engineers have stacked Starship prototype #24 on top of Superheavy prototype #7, with the intention of running a dress rehearsal countdown and a full static fire test of Superheavy’s 33 engines, all in preparation for the first orbital test flight before the end of this year.

According to CEO Elon Musk, Booster 7 and Ship 24 will attempt Starship’s first full-stack wet dress rehearsal (WDR) once all is in order. The prototypes will be simultaneously loaded with around 5000 tons (~11M lb) of liquid oxygen and methane propellant and then run through a launch countdown. Diverging just before ignition and liftoff, a WDR is meant to be more or less identical to a launch attempt.

…If the wet dress rehearsal goes to plan, SpaceX will then attempt to simultaneously ignite all 33 of the Raptor engines installed on Super Heavy B7, almost certainly making it the most powerful liquid rocket ever tested. Even if all 33 engines never reach more than 60% of their maximum thrust of 230 tons (~510,000 lbf), they will likely break the Soviet N-1 rocket’s record of 4500 tons of thrust (~10M lbf) at sea level. It would also be the most rocket engines ever simultaneously ignited on one vehicle. SpaceX will be pushing the envelope by several measures, and success is far from guaranteed.

Depending on the results of these tests, the stacked rocket will either require further modifications, or could even proceed directly to launch.

We are thus seeing a true race between SpaceX’s privately developed and funded rocket and NASA’s government developed and funded SLS rocket. Which will launch first? Right now the race is neck-and-neck, though that is deceiving since SpaceX began development twelve years after NASA started work on SLS. Even if SLS launches first, SpaceX will have clearly shown that private enterprise does things faster (7 years vs 18 years) and for far less money (about $9 billion vs $46 billion).

SpaceX to upgrade 2nd Kennedy launchpad for manned launches

In order to create some increased redundancy, SpaceX and NASA have agreed to upgrade the company’s second launchpad at Cape Canaveral, LC-40, so that both it and pad LC-39A can launch manned Dragon capsules.

This plan grew out of concern by NASA that the new Starship orbital launchpad was too close to LC-39A, and could possibly damage it during a launch. Should that happen, and no back-up launchpad was available, the agency would have no way to get astronauts up to ISS, since Boeing’s Starliner is not yet operational. Because of that concern, NASA made it clear that no Starship launches could occur in Florida until this issue was resolved.

The solution? Make LC-40 a manned launchpad too.

Nothing is known about the nature of the modifications that LC-40 will require. But more likely than not, NASA will require SpaceX to develop something similar to Pad 39A’s facilities. That would involve building a new crew access tower, crew access arm, escape system (39A uses baskets and ziplines), and an on-site bunker for astronauts.

It is also likely that no Starship launches at Kennedy will occur until this work is done and a manned launch from LC-40 takes place. Though this could delay Starship somewhat, I expect not significantly. Before SpaceX is ready to launch operationally in Florida, it still has to do a lot of testing and development of Starship/Superheavy in Boca Chica, work that could take several years. I also suspect that it will get the launchpad work done relatively quickly, especially if NASA agrees to pay for it.

Musk: Starship orbital attempt by November, at the latest

According to a tweet yesterday by Elon Musk, SpaceX engineers will likely have the first orbital prototypes of Starship and Superheavy ready for the orbital attempt either late in October, or by November. His full tweet:

Late next month maybe, but November seems highly likely. We will have two boosters & ships ready for orbital flight by then, with full stack production at roughly one every two months. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words are the most significant. SpaceX is not building one rocket for test, like NASA has done with SLS. It is building an assembly line of test rockets, so that it can do a fast series of test launches plus upgrades, leading to quick and reliable operations. Should any one rocket launch fail, the company will speedily move on to the next, with little or no delay.

Should SLS fail in its first test launch sometime in the next month, NASA has no back-up. The entire program will be shattered, with no easy way to recover.

SpaceX fires seven engines on Superheavy prototype #7

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully did a static fire engine test of seven engines on its Superheavy prototype #7, intended to be the lower stage of the first Superheavy/Starship orbital test.

The link takes you to the full live stream. Below I have cued that live stream to just before the test occurred. Everything seems to go as planned, with no obvious anomalies.

SpaceX continues to be moving closer and closer to that first orbital flight.
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Update on SpaceX’s Starship and Superheavy

Link here. The article not only outlines the test program leading to the first launch of prototypes Starship #24 and Superheavy #7, it describes the status of later prototypes, as well as the construction of SpaceX’s Starship launch site in Florida. Key quote:

Booster 7’s gradual approach to static fire testing will allow the teams to fix issues as they test and fully mature procedures and software ahead of the long-awaited orbital flight of Starship. Should this gradual testing go without a hitch, it could culminate in one or perhaps even two 33-engine static fire tests of Booster 7 on the OLM [orbital launch mount].

Once this testing is completed and any issues found fixed, it’ll be cleared to proceed into another phase of testing: Ship 24 will then be stacked on top of Booster 7 for combined tests. This could include launch countdown simulations, an eventual full-up countdown, and a 33-engine static fire test.

SpaceX hopes to complete this by mid-next month and clear both vehicles for launch shortly after. However, as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, any issues encountered during this intense test campaign could well mean a slip to later into the year and, perhaps, into next year.

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.

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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 completes static fire test of three engines on Superheavy prototype #7

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday successfully completed the first static fire test of more than one engine on its Superheavy prototype #7, firing three engines for five seconds.

NASASpaceflight livestreamed the test, and its footage suggests that only two engines may have fully lit up, with the third perhaps aborting. Whether or not the third Raptor joined the party, however, it was still the first multi-engine Super Heavy static fire that SpaceX has performed.

I have embedded that footage below. Expect more such tests in the coming days. If all works as planned (something we should not expect as this remains a development program), the tests will culminate in an orbital test flight sending Starship on a one orbit mission around the Earth. At present SpaceX wants that flight to occur before the end of this year.

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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.

NASA describes Starship’s first unmanned test lunar landing

In a briefing focused on the science that could be placed on the mission, a NASA official yesterday provided a status update of SpaceX’s first unmanned test flight by Starship to the Moon.

First, the official revealed that NASA is only requiring SpaceX to demonstrate a successful landing. Take-off will not be required. Also,

Starship is not designed to fly directly to the Moon like NASA’s Space Launch System, however. Instead, the first stage puts it only in Earth orbit. To go further, it must fill up with propellant at a yet-to-be-built orbiting fuel depot. Other Starships are needed to deliver propellant to the depot.

Watson-Morgan described the Concept of Operations for Starship’s Artemis III mission, starting with launch of the fuel depot, then a number of “propellant aggregation” launches to fill up the depot, then launch of the Starship that will go to Moon.

Previously SpaceX suggested that the ship would be directly refueled by subsequent Starships, with no middle-man fueling depot. It could be either engineering had made the depot necessary, or NASA politics have insisted upon it.

Finally, the talk outlined the elevator SpaceX is developing to lower the astronauts and equipment to the ground from Starship’s top.

Starship gets its first communications satellite customer

Capitalism in space: Sky Perfect JSAT, a Japanese satellite communications company, today awarded SpaceX a launch contract using its giant Starship/Superheavy rocket to put its Superbird-9 communications satellite into orbit in 2024.

Superbird-9 will be launched by SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle in 2024 to geosynchronous transfer orbit. SpaceX’s Starship is a fully reusable transportation system that will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle. SKY Perfect JSAT and SpaceX will continue to work together ahead of the launch of Superbird-9 Satellite.

Sky Perfect is the first communications satellite company to choose Starship for a satellite launch. It is however the rocket’s fourth signed customer. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa made a deal in 2018 for a flight around the Moon, while NASA chose Starship in 2021 as the manned lunar lander in its Artemis program. UPDATE: SpaceX also has a second private manned customer, Jared Isaacman, whose present deal with SpaceX calls for two Dragon flights followed by a Starship flight.

Sky Perfect is not a new company, with sixteen satellites already in orbit providing communications, broadband, and entertainment to Japan and the Far East. It likely made this deal because it got a very good launch price, with options to back out if the rocket’s on-going development gets delayed by too much. It also made the deal because it helps to solidify Starship’s future, something Sky Perfect probably sees as a win considering the significant reduction of launch costs expected from Starship/Superheavy.

Another and this time longer static fire tests for Superheavy prototype #7

Capitalism in space: SpaceX engineers yesterday conducted a second static fire engine test of the 7th prototype of its Superheavy first stage booster, firing a different engine for 20 seconds.

The action ramped up on Thursday (Aug. 11) for Booster 7, which conducted a much longer static fire on Starbase’s orbital launch mount. The burn, which occurred at 3:48 p.m. EDT (1948 GMT), lasted for 20 seconds, SpaceX said via Twitter (opens in new tab).

The long-duration burn aimed to “test autogenous pressurization,” according to a tweet posted by Musk (opens in new tab) shortly before Booster 7 fired up.

Expect these engine tests to occur on a regular basis over the next few weeks, as engineers ramp up their operations in preparation for the first orbital flight of both prototype #7 with Starship prototype #24 stacked on top.

SpaceX gets FCC communications license for Starship orbital launch

Capitalism in space: The FCC yesterday approved SpaceX’s communications license for one or more Starship orbital launches, with a six month launch window beginning on September 1, 2022.

This FCC approval is not a launch license, which must be given by the FAA. It does tell us that SpaceX will not attempt the first orbital launch of Starship before the end of this month. It also tells us that the company likely plans on an aggressive test program from September ’22 through February ’23, assuming the FAA and the federal bureaucracy finally stops blocking that program.

Superheavy prototype #7 and Starship prototype #24 undergo static fire tests

Superheavy #7's first launchpad engine test
Click for original photo.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX engineers yesterday performed static fire tests of both its Superheavy prototype #7 and its Starship prototype #24.

The Superheavy prototype fired one engine, and did so only a few weeks after that prototype experienced an explosive event the launchpad during earlier fueling/engine tests. Yesterday’s engine test was the first time any Superheavy prototype had fired its engines on the launchpad.

The Starship prototype meanwhile fired two engines on a nearby vertical test stand.

SpaceX’s plan is to stack #24 on top of #7 and attempt an orbital launch test that will have the Superheavy prototype land in the Gulf of Mexico while the Starship prototype reaches orbit and then returns to Earth in the Pacific northeast of Hawaii. Based on the company’s normal pace of operations, that flight is probably only weeks away. However, before that flight engineers will have to do a full static fire test of all 33 of #7 engines, and then like do it again with Starship #24 stacked on top.

SpaceX raises another $250 million in investment capital

Capitalism in space: SpaceX in July raised $250 million in investment capital from five unnamed investors, bringing the total raised in 2022 to $2 billion.

Added to the amount brought in before this year, SpaceX has raised about $9 billion in private capital, most of which is focused on financing the development of Starship/Superheavy. When you add the $2.9 billion contract it won from NASA to develop Starship as a manned lunar lander, the company has raised about $12 billion to build this heavy lift rocket.

The numbers demonstrate several things. First, Wall Street is apparently very confident SpaceX will succeed in building the rocket, and then make a lot of money from it. Second, the numbers prove it shouldn’t cost $60 billion and two decades to design and build a heavy lift rocket, as NASA has done with its SLS rocket. SpaceX is doing it for less than a fifth of the cost, in a third of the time.

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 (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.

Update on status of first orbital Starship/Superheavy

Link here. The main focus of the article is the state of Superheavy prototype #7, which experienced an explosion and some damage during testing earlier this month.

The day after the anomaly, Elon indicated on Twitter that Booster 7 would roll back to the production site to work on repairs to the vehicle and assess the next steps. Rollback occurred on July 14, and in the following days, it’s been observed that several Raptor engines have been taken off from the vehicle, likely for further inspection and testing at SpaceX’s McGregor test facility a few hours drive up north from Starbase.

As of writing, repairs are continuing on Booster 7, and it will likely still be undergoing repairs for the next week or two. So while an early retirement for the vehicle could be expected, the current target by teams is still an orbital flight by Booster 7 and Ship 24 with a notional target date of late August for the flight.

If SpaceX decides to retire #7, it already is prepping #8 and #9, with #8 likely to be put on the launchpad for testing in the next week.

The target date for that first orbital launch is still in August, but that schedule appears increasingly unlikely.

NASA is apparently withdrawing its permit for Starship launches in Florida

We’re here to help you: In requesting public input into SpaceX’s plans to expand operations in Florida to accommodate launches of its Starship/Superheavy rocket, NASA is apparently withdrawing the permit it issued in 2019, allowing for such launches.

While a Final Environmental Assessment for Starship was issued in September 2019, NASA said that communication with SpaceX will be ongoing prior to a future first flight from Florida.

“NASA will review the risks to the area and programs at KSC [Kennedy Space Center] prior to any hazardous work,” Bob Holl told Spectrum News in a statement. “NASA will be involved in the lead-up of activities prior to the first loading and any static fire events of Starship and coordinate impacts across the spaceport.” Holl serves as the chief of the Spaceport Management and Integration Division in the Spaceport Integration and Services Directorate at KSC.

It appears NASA and the federal bureaucracy have decided that a new environmental assessment is necessary for SpaceX’s proposed new operation in Florida. After a 30-day period for public input, ending on July 29th, NASA will issue a new draft environmental assessment by September, which will then be subject to another public comment period. Then, the agency will issue a final decision in November, either declaring the new work causes no further impact or that a new environmental impact statement is required.

If the latter, expect Starship launches at Kennedy to be delayed several years.

This action continues the increased regulatory oversight on new space activities being imposed since the arrival of the Biden administration. The federal government is now apparently trying to set a new policy whereby any new work by a private company on or even near federal land will require its full approval, and even if given that approval will carry with it strict and endless governmental demands, all designed to slow things down.

The political timing of this new action however is significant, since this decision will occur after the November midterms. If control of Congress shifts significantly into Republican hands, as expected, the Biden administration’s new heavy-handed regulatory approach might face some pushback.

Superheavy prototype #7 explodes during tanking test

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Superheavy prototype #7 exploded yesterday during a tanking test in Boca Chica, Texas.

I have embedded the video of the explosion below, cued to just before it occurred.

According to Musk, the engineering teams are presently assessing damage. The booster itself appeared relatively intact afterward, though leaning slightly to one side.

At a minimum this incident will delay the orbital launch attempt, especially if booster #7 must be replaced with booster #8, already being prepped in the assembly building nearby.

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SpaceX preps for final engine tests before first orbital Starship/Superheavy flight

Capitalism in space: Having moved its 7th prototype Superheavy booster to the launch pad in Boca Chica even as its installs the six Raptor engines on the 24th prototype of Starship, SpaceX is now about to begin the final engines tests prior to the first orbital Starship/Superheavy flight.

For the first time the chopstick arms on the launch tower were used to lift and place the Superheavy booster onto the pad. It is expected that static fire tests of its 33 Raptor engines could begin within the next few weeks.

The orbital Starship meanwhile is still in the assembly building, where engineers are installing its own six Raptor engines.

Though SpaceX has not made public the exact schedule of tests leading to launch, it is expected that the company will do a short static fire test program with Superheavy alone, and then do a follow-up short series of tests once the Starship prototype is stacked on top. Based on past history, if the tests show no problems SpaceX will quickly move to launch. Though there have been indications that it is targeting July, it would not be surprising if that date slips to August.

The race between Starship and SLS for which will get into orbit first appears to be tightening.

NASA now targeting late August launch of SLS

NASA officials today confirmed that they are satisfied with the results from this week’s incomplete dress rehearsal countdown of the SLS rocket, and are targeting a late August launch of SLS.

NASA officials have reviewed the data collected during the test run and decided that a leaky hydrogen valve was not significant enough to force a delay in the launch of Artemis I, an uncrewed mission planning to orbit the moon and return to Earth. It’s the first step toward putting humans back on the moon for the first time since Apollo 17 in 1972.

“The team is now ready to take the next step and prepare for launch,” said NASA’s deputy associate administrator Tom Whitmeyer.

NASA officials said they will roll the massive Space Launch System rocket back to the Vehicle Assembly Building, where the valve’s faulty seal will be replaced. Rollback is slated for Friday July 1, though weather concerns could push that back.

SLS won the five-plus year race with the Webb telescope on which would have the most delays and launch last. Now the race will be between SLS and SpaceX’s Starship/Superheavy. Which will launch first this summer? In a rational world, SLS should win hands down. It has been in development since 2004, while Starship only began design work in 2017.

This is not a rational world, however, and SLS’s long gestation had little to do with designing a rocket and everything to do with politics and a corrupt Congress and an incompetent NASA. The rocket that has come out of this is thus difficult to operate and incredibly cumbersome. Its components have also not been tested thoroughly.

SpaceX meanwhile has been designing and building its heavy-lift rocket with only one goal: the rocket must be efficient to operate.

I predict Starship will reach orbit first, though if it doesn’t it most likely will be because SpaceX finds it needs to do more ground tests and revisions, not because SLS has surged ahead. And regardless, Starship will likely fly many times in the next three years, while SLS will only get off the ground once.

More important, the chances of SLS and Orion working perfectly throughout that that lunar orbit mission seem almost impossible, based on track record during the past eighteen years of both programs. Expect some issues to crop up, first during the launch countdown, forcing several scrubs, and then during the mission itself. None might be mortal, but all will raise questions whether it would be wise to put humans on this rocket and capsule on its next flight, and attempt to take them to the Moon.

NASA blocks Starship/Superheavy launches at SpaceX’s new Florida launchpad

Capitalism in space: NASA officials revealed yesterday that it will not allow any Starship/Superheavy launches at SpaceX’s new Florida launchpad, at least for the moment, because of the threat a launchpad failure might have on the launchpad SpaceX uses to launch manned Falcon 9 missions to ISS.

The NASA statement said the agency “is responsible for ensuring SpaceX remains compliant with the requirements of the property agreement for the use of Launch Complex 39A.”

“These requirements include those related to construction, safety and environmental conditions,” the statement said. “At this time, NASA has only provided approval to build. Additional review for hazards, operational impacts and supportability will be required prior to a launch.”

The new Starship launchpad is 1,000 feet away from pad 39A, which is SpaceX’s manned Dragon launchpad. NASA management thinks this is too close. However, the managers have also not ruled out future launches, only that they wish to do a thorough review of the issue with SpaceX.

Because NASA and the federal government is also relying on Starship to land its astronauts on the Moon, it can’t block Starship flights outright. It could be however that this issue might shift Starship operations back to Boca Chica, after federal government opposition there forced SpaceX to shift more operations to Florida.

In other words, the government wants its cake and eat it to. Some factions within the Biden administration and the Washington bureaucracy want to block Starship, others want it to fly. The result is a tug-of war, with SpaceX in the middle.

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]:
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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.

Update on Starship in Texas and Florida

Link here. The article goes into great detail describing the status of the Superheavy booster prototype and the Starship prototype now planned for that first orbital launch, with this comment:

While some claim FAA is the hold up for Starship plans [I wonder who], even if the FAA had approved a launch in December of last year, SpaceX likely still would not have been ready for an orbital launch.

Maybe so, but why do journalists today have to bend over backwards making believe the federal government is not a problem, or is not interfering with this private company’s operations? It clearly is a problem, and is interfering with private companies, and it is doing so more and more for political reasons. Good reporting must note this.

The report also provides details on the status of SpaceX’s Florida Starship orbital launchpad. The company only began serious construction in Florida in April, yet large sections of the launch tower as well as its foundation have already been built. The pace of construction — as well as SpaceX’s past history building the Boca Chica launchpad — suggests this launchpad could be ready before the end of the year.

Compare that with NASA’s incompetent effort to build its SLS mobile launchers. The contrast is striking.

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.

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