It’s been a long time since SpaceX launched a rocket from South Texas. After a flurry of seven Starship prototype test flights from August 2020 to May 2021, the company has not taken off from its launch pad near Boca Chica Beach.
There are good reasons for this lag and there are good reasons to believe that this may soon change as SpaceX progresses toward an orbital launch attempt from South Texas later this year.
Seven launches of a full-scale Starship prototype slowly pushed the envelope, starting with two 150-metre hops before flying to an altitude of 12.5 km to perform a belly-flop maneuver that would be close to Earth. will be required during the return of the vehicle through the atmosphere. The flight test program culminated with the successful soft-landing of Starship after a flight of 10 km.
By that time, SpaceX had pushed its Starship prototype as far as it could go. The vehicle did not have the ability to reach orbit on its own, so SpaceX had to complete development of the “super heavy” first stage of the launch system. Since this will be the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, it will need to be accomplished on multiple fronts – from rocket to ground systems to paperwork. And so the launch pads in Boca Chica have been quiet for over a year.
Eliminating the Super Heavy was an important task in itself. Since that vehicle required 33 Raptor rocket engines, the company had to work in terms of production to increase that kind of capability. By comparison, Aerojet Rocketdyne, once a propulsion leader in the United States, has set a goal of building four RS-25 rocket engines a year for NASA’s Space Launch System. SpaceX is now building at least four Raptor rocket engines a week. Both the engines are comparable in terms of their overall power.
Then it became clear to SpaceX founder Elon Musk and his team that the original Raptor rocket engine was too heavy and lacked sufficient performance. So the company decided to hold off flight tests of the super heavy until the “Raptor 2” engine was ready. Looks like it was a smart decision. The original Raptor engine produced 185 tons of thrust, but the Raptor 2 would have at least 230 tons. It should also cost half as much to build and be significantly more robust as its design matures.
Much effort has also gone into the design and construction of a massive “launch and catch” tower at the South Texas site. Standing over 150 meters tall, it supports fully stacked rockets during refueling and launch operations. Then, minutes after launch, it would grasp the first stage’s booster with massive “chopsticks” as the rocket slows near the ground. The entire process of design and construction took about 13 months. SpaceX had to significantly upgrade its ground support equipment at the Texas site to fuel the Super Heavy and Starship vehicles at the same time.
In the end the paperwork happened. SpaceX’s original environmental approval for the Texas site allowed for about a dozen launches a year of its smaller Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Because the Starship launch system was out of scope, the company had to go back to the Federal Aviation Administration and seek permission for a more effective launch. This kicked off a year long process. And while it’s not yet complete, SpaceX made a major decision earlier this month when it received a crucial regulatory approval. The company now has a way to operate Starship test flights from Texas.
Further evidence of progress was found Thursday when SpaceX rolled out its “Booster 7” prototype of the super heavy rocket to the launch site. It was first picked up by “chopsticks” on the launch tower and mounted on its launch mount. 33 Raptor 2 engine rocket lifting off was truly a sight to behold.
Booster 7’s full chopstick lift. Super Heavy has been picked up by Mechazilla for the first time ever.
33 Raptor 2s:https://t.co/ta64s5lm9H pic.twitter.com/QqsgJiFFQP
— Chris Burgin – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) 24 June 2022
If this booster survives a pressure test and potentially a static fire test in the coming days and weeks – by no means guaranteed given the developmental nature of the Raptor 2 engine – it could be the rocket that Lofts Starship on an orbital test flight.
Musk, who is pushing SpaceX as quickly as possible despite his efforts to buy Twitter and the unrest caused by his actions, recently said He believed an orbital launch attempt could come in July. Another Starship Stack will be ready to fly in August, he said.
As always, this sounds like an over-optimistic projection. But by all accounts, the hardware in South Texas is close to ready, and the paperwork is being done. A launch attempt this year is more likely than not now.