Sometimes it’s hard to write objectively about SpaceX’s rate of progress. The progress we’re seeing at the company’s Starbase site in South Texas is unprecedented.
like, seriously Unprecedented.
On Sunday, SpaceX ended the stacking of what it called “Booster 4,” the first of its super heavy rocket boosters expected to fly. It is a massive, single-core rocket about 70 meters long, 9 meters in diameter. Its thrust is almost twice that of the Saturn V rocket that launched NASA astronauts to the Moon.
Then, overnight, something remarkable happened. Technicians and engineers at the SpaceX Build Facility near Boca Chica Beach attach 29 Raptor rocket engines to the rocket. twenty nine engines. Each with complicated plumbing lines and connections. This is the number of engines that the Super Heavy will fly for initial flight tests, although the final configuration is likely to have 33 engines.
I’m not really sure what to write or say about all this, because it usually takes a few days to set up an engine in the rocket business.
After some initial checks in the assembly area, Booster 4 will land at the launch site a few kilometers down the road. It could happen by Tuesday. After this, a series of pressure tests and static fire tests are likely to take place. With several pricey Raptor engines on the line, we can probably expect SpaceX to be fairly cautious with this vehicle’s test program.
SpaceX has also nearly completed the latest Starship upper-stage prototype “Ship 20,” which will be mounted on top of Booster 4 for a full-stack launch of the Starship system.
While SpaceX has made substantial progress on the hardware, the company’s movement on the regulatory side of things remains questionable. It appears that rapid assembly of the Starship, its Super Heavy booster and the Orbital Launch Complex in South Texas will set off another high-stakes showdown between the FAA and SpaceX. The company is going to be ready to fly, but there is no clarity about when the Federal Aviation Administration will complete its environmental review of the Starbase location and approve an orbital launch from the site.
For months, SpaceX has been working with the FAA on an environmental assessment. After a “draft” of this assessment is published, there will be a minimum period of 30 days for public comments. Other steps will then be taken, including those determined by the FAA whether SpaceX’s proposed environmental mitigations will be sufficient, or if more work is needed. More information about this process is available at FAA website.
Given all of that, it’s difficult for SpaceX to get the regulatory approval needed to launch Starship on an orbital test flight before this fall, if not later.
Still, SpaceX is reportedly working in South Texas, bringing in hundreds of employees from its California-based headquarters and elsewhere to complete Booster 4’s assembly and launch site facilities. If regulatory approval is not coming for months, why is she doing this?
This sounds like a calculated effort to prompt the FAA to move more quickly with the regulatory process. The optics of the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built in the world, sitting on the launch pad waiting for paperwork, aren’t great. And now that NASA and the US Department of Defense both have a vested interest in Starship’s success, SpaceX may find allies elsewhere in the US government.