SpaceX has reportedly swapped a “suspect” Raptor engine installed on Starship serial number 10 (SN10) in record time, setting the company up for what appeared to be an excellent static fire just 48 hours after the first test.
In a February 24th tweet, CEO Elon Musk told followers that “one of [SN10’s three Raptor] engines is suspect, so we’re swapping it out.” Engine swap-outs have been a regular procedure for SpaceX’s Starship team as the company continually pushes the envelope of both Starship and Raptor prototype fidelity and implement major design changes and upgrades. Of the five Starship prototypes (including Starhopper) with intentional flights under their belts, all required at least one engine replacement before being cleared to launch.
Within ~18 hours of Tuesday’s “suspect” Starship SN10 static fire, SpaceX dispatched a replacement Raptor down the road from a nearby storage site. Within ~12 hours, the faulty engine had been removed and a backup engine installed in its place. Another ~12 hours after that, SpaceX teams cleared the launch pad for Starship SN10 to attempt a second static fire and (hopefully) qualify the rocket for flight.
Starship SN10 – set to be the sixth prototype to fly – is now part of that elite but buggy group of flightworthy test articles. For the most part, that bugginess is all according to plan: SpaceX’s ability to move and react with extreme speed is what allows the company to make such rapid progress and begin test flights as early in the development process as it does. That speed of action includes responding to the inevitable bugs that crop up while testing cutting-edge rocket prototypes.
Case in point, after Tuesday’s 5pm CST static fire, it took SpaceX less than 48 hours to pore through the test’s data, conclude that one of SN10’s three Raptor engines was “suspect,” select a replacement engine, remove the faulty engine, install that replacement, and fire up Starship SN10 a second time. Even SpaceX’s world-class reusable Falcon rockets would have a hard time challenging that engine swap turnaround. Taking a broader look at the lay of the land, NASA’s SLS rocket booster – outfitted with four former Space Shuttle engines – will reportedly require more than three weeks for teams to swap out a faulty valve in one of those four engines.
The first SLS Core Stage suffered an early abort during its first static fire test in mid January. As of publishing, NASA is now working towards a second static fire attempt in mid March – two full months later. By all appearances, SpaceX turned Starship SN10 around in 48 hours, performing what looked like a full-duration, nominal three-engine static fire on February 25th. Unlike February 23rd’s static fire, Starship exhibited no signs of an abort immediately after the test, whereas SN10 began large depressurization venting the second its Raptors shut down on Tuesday.
Unfortunately, everything will remain uncertain until SpaceX official confirms its plans, but Starship SN10 should be fully cleared for a launch attempt as early as Monday, March 1st if a data review of its Thursday static fire raises no red flags. Stay tuned for updates as SpaceX prepares to find out if the third time really is the charm.
Three weeks after the building-sized rocket was spotted on its way to Texas, SpaceX’s next new Falcon Heavy ‘center core’ has gone vertical at the company’s rocket testing headquarters.
Spotted by a local resident on February 25th after hearing an exceptionally loud (“house shak[ing]”) static fire the night prior, the Falcon Heavy booster may have been responsible for that commotion. All three Falcon Heavy cores and “single-stick” Falcon 9 boosters use the same setup of nine Merlin 1D engines and offer more or less identical performance on their own, so Wednesday’s unusually loud tests were probably just a fluke of atmospheric attenuation.
Still, SpaceX’s Falcon booster static fires are likely the loudest tests it performs at McGregor, making Falcon Heavy center core B1065 (or B1066) the most obvious culprit. If that’s the case and the last of the latest batch of three new Falcon Heavy boosters has been successfully qualified with a full-duration static fire, SpaceX is firmly on track for the rocket’s next launch.
As previously discussed on Teslarati, a US Space Force spokesperson recently spoke with Spaceflight Now, revealing a slight delay from late-May or June to July 2021 for Falcon Heavy’s fourth launch. Known as USSF-44, the mystery mission could be followed by another Falcon Heavy launch – USSF-52 – as early as October 2021, a turnaround that seems improbable without USSF-44 side booster reuse or a major uptick in booster production and testing.
The center core now vertical at SpaceX’s McGregor campus was previously spotted making its way through East Texas on February 3rd, representing a fairly quick turnaround if the booster did perform a static fire just three weeks later.
SpaceX could be ready to send the booster onwards to Florida in early March if that brisk pace continues, leaving a comfortable amount of time to complete, test, and deliver Falcon Heavy Flight 4’s payload fairing and expendable upper stage. The mission will debut Falcon Heavy’s expendable-center-core configuration, meaning that at least one more new center core will be headed through McGregor within the next few months if the rocket’s Flight 5 (USSF-52) schedule is to hold.
Afat, red sun sank into the Texas horizon as Elon Musk bounded toward a silvery spaceship. Reaching its concrete landing pad, Musk marveled up at the stainless steel, steampunk contraption looming above, which shone brilliantly in the dying light. “It’s like something out of a Mad Max movie,” he gushed about the first prototype of his Mars rocket, nicknamed Starhopper.
Musk traveled to his South Texas rocket factory in mid-September 2019 to track progress of SpaceX’s Starship vehicle, the culmination of nearly two decades of effort to move humans from Earth to Mars. Weeks earlier, Starhopper soared into the clear skies above the coastal scrubland, located just this side of the Mexico border. And then, it very nearly crashed. Luckily, the Federal Aviation Administration had restricted the flight’s maximum altitude to five hundred feet, so when engineers lost control during Starhopper’s descent its landing legs merely crushed through the pad’s steel-reinforced concrete, rather than erupting into a ball of flame. Musk laughed at this thought. For much of SpaceX’s lifetime he has fought against regulators, always seeking to go faster, to push higher. “This time,” he quipped, “the FAA saved us.”
This was his first visit to Starhopper since. Musk made the rounds, high-fiving a handful of employees and enjoying the moment with three of his sons who had come along for the weekend trip from Los Angeles. Starhopper, he explained to the boys, is made from stainless steel, the same stuff in pots and pans.
This stainless steel, however, had the look of being left on a stovetop’s open flame for too long. The evening’s deepening darkness could not mask extensive charring on the metal. Standing beneath Starhopper, Musk peered upward into the cavern housing a large fuel tank that had fed propellant to a Raptor rocket engine. “It’s in remarkably good shape considering we had an inferno in there,” he said.
Elon Musk traveled a long road to reach these plains rolling down to the Gulf of Mexico. In 2002, Musk founded SpaceX with the intention of eventually building spaceships that would take hundreds, and then thousands, of human settlers to Mars. Though a cold, likely dead, and nearly airless world, Mars nonetheless offers humanity the best place to expand beyond Earth. Mars has polar ice caps, useful chemicals in its thin atmosphere, and material to scratch out a living. It also is relatively close, as planets go.
Over the years, Musk has accomplished a number of remarkable feats with SpaceX, flying astronauts into space, landing rockets on boats, and remaking the global aerospace industry. But those achievements pale next to the audacity of trying to send humans to Mars, which remains far beyond the present-day capability of NASA or any other space agency around the world. Even with an annual budget approaching $25 billion a year, and some of the smartest scientists and engineers anywhere, the space agency that landed humans on the Moon remains several giant leaps away from sending a few astronauts to Mars.
Musk wants to build a city there. Perhaps it is better to say something inside Musk relentlessly drives him to do this. He long ago decided that for humanity to have a long-term future it must expand to other worlds, with Mars offering the best place to start. This is extremely hard because space is an insanely dangerous place, permeated by radiation, and with certain death always lurking on the other side of thin, pressurized walls. The amount of water, food, fuel, and clothing needed to sustain a months-long outbound mission to Mars is astounding, and once there people must actually have somewhere to survive on the surface. The largest object NASA has ever sent to the surface of Mars, the Perseverance rover, weighs about one ton. A single, small human mission would probably require fifty times the mass. For a sustainable human settlement, Musk thinks he probably needs to ship 1 million tons to Mars. This is why he is building the massive, reusable Starship vehicle in Texas.
In many ways, SpaceX is vastly different today from the company Musk started long ago. But in important ways, it remains exactly the same. With the Starship project, SpaceX has returned to its earliest, scrappy days when it strove to build the Falcon 1 rocket against all odds. Then, as now, Musk pushed his employees relentlessly to move fast, to innovate, to test, and to fly. The DNA of the earliest days, of the Falcon 1 rocket, lives on in South Texas today at the Starship factory. And a huge photo of a Falcon 1 launch hangs on the wall of Musk’s personal conference room at the company’s headquarters in California.
To understand SpaceX, where it aspires to go, and why it just might succeed, one must voyage back to the Falcon 1 rocket and dig up the roots. The seeds for everything SpaceX has grown into today were planted during the early days of the Falcon 1 program by Musk. Back then he sought to build the world’s first low-cost, orbital rocket. All of the aspirational talk about Mars would mean nothing if SpaceX could not put a relatively simple rocket like the Falcon 1 into orbit. And so, with a burning intensity, he pressed toward that goal. SpaceX began with nothing but an empty factory and a handful of employees. This small group launched its first rocket less than four years later and reached orbit in six. The story of how SpaceX survived those lean, early years is a remarkable one. Many of the same people who made the Falcon 1 go remain at SpaceX today. Some have moved on. But all have stories about those early, formative years that remain mostly untold.
The men and women who helped Musk bring SpaceX through its darkest days hailed from farm country in California, from the suburbs of the Midwest, from East Coast cities, from Lebanon, Turkey, and Germany. Musk hired them all, molded them into a team, and coaxed them to do the nearly impossible. Their path to orbit led from the United States to a small tropical island about as far from a continental landmass one can get on this world. And out there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the company very nearly died multiple times.
More than a decade later Musk and SpaceX have traversed the chasm separating failure and success. After perusing Starhopper at sunset, he spent several hours touring his rocket shipyard in South Texas. Through the night, as a full moon rose, employees banged and welded and hefted a full-sized Starship prototype from rolls of stainless steel. The hour had reached near midnight when he and his boys emerged from a construction trailer. As his kids tumbled into the waiting black SUV, Musk paused to look up at the towering Starship under construction. It appeared as much a skyscraper as a spaceship.
Taking it all in, a childlike smile broke out over his face. “Hey,” Musk said, turning to me. “Can you believe that thing, or something like it, is going to take people to another planet for the first time in 4.5 billion years? I mean, probably. It may not work. But it probably will.”
EMPLOYEE NO. 14
For those so bold as to dare fly to Mars, the summer of 2003 offered a hopeful sign of things to come. Due to the quirks of planetary motion, in July the red planet made its closest approach to Earth in sixty thousand years. At the time, a small company named SpaceX had only just begun to cut metal on its first rocket. Although its inaugural launch remained a few years away, the firm’s founder, Elon Musk, had already taken the first step toward Mars. He understood he would go nowhere without the right people. So interview by interview, Musk sought out the brilliant and creative engineers who would commit themselves wholly to his goal— and make the impossible possible. He was beginning to find them.
Brian Bjelde was oblivious to Mars’s close approach and Musk’s dreams that summer when he received a phone call from a former college classmate. They had bonded during late nights in the University of Southern California’s aerospace lab, tinkering with vacuum chambers and small satellites. The friend, Phil Kassouf, spoke rapturously about his new job working for a hard- charging multimillionaire from Silicon Valley. The guy had crazy plans to build a rocket and one day travel to Mars. You should come by for a tour, Kassouf said, and gave his friend an address near the Los Angeles airport.
Bjelde was living a charmed existence at the time. The cherubic twenty-three-year-old had risen from modest means in California’s rural farm country to make good in the big city. After graduating from U.S.C. as an aerospace engineer, Bjelde took a job at NASA’s prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just north of Los Angeles. In turn, NASA paid for graduate school at U.S.C. As an advisor to a fraternity, Bjelde enjoyed free housing along with his pick of the best weekend parties.
So when Bjelde rolled up to SpaceX’s modest headquarters in El Segundo, he really had just come for the tour. “You walk in, and there’s a desk, and there’s these two double glass doors,” Bjelde said. “I walked through the office, shaking hands. There were gray cubicles. There was really nothing on the tour. Only an empty factory. They had just glossed off the factory floors.”
What struck Bjelde most of all was the Coke machine in the break room. Musk had imported this innovation from Silicon Valley— unlimited free soda, to keep the workforce caffeinated at all hours. For someone from academia, and the sober environment at NASA, this was a novelty. As he moved through the office, one of the dozen or so people in the cube farm asked Bjelde about his projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which builds robotic spacecraft to explore the Solar System. Bjelde explained about his use of semiconductors, plasma etching, and vapor pressure to develop new propulsion techniques for small satellites.
Sure, someone responded, but what did he think about propulsion for big systems? Like, say, rockets? Suddenly, it clicked. Bjelde had not really been invited for a tour and as many Cokes as he could drink. This was a job interview.
“I ended up in this room,” he said. “Unbeknownst to me, it was called the meat locker because it was so cold. Somehow, in the HVAC circuit, it got the super flow. It was freezing in there.”
Various people rotated through. His friend, Kassouf, came first. Then Phil’s boss, the company’s vice president of avionics, Hans Koenigsmann, spoke with Bjelde. Eventually, Musk himself walked in. Only a decade older than Bjelde, Musk already was a very wealthy, increasingly famous entrepreneur. To break the ice, Bjelde made the usual small talk— it’s nice to meet you, I’ve heard a lot about you, I’m excited to be here. The hyperobservant Musk, never one much for pleasantries, moved straight into questions.
“Do you dye your hair?” Musk asked.
Somewhat flustered, Bjelde replied that he did not. One of Musk’s common tactics during an interview involves throwing a person off-kilter, to see how a potential employee reacts. In Bjelde, however, he had found someone with the gift of gab. Bjelde can talk to anyone. So after quickly recovering, he asked Musk, “Is this an icebreaker? Because it’s working.”
But Musk said he was serious. He had noticed that Bjelde’s eyebrows were very light, and his hair darker. The young engineer explained that the disparity was natural. Soon, they were laughing.
During the thirty-minute interview Musk probed into Bjelde’s background, but also shared his vision for SpaceX, founded to make humanity a truly space-faring civilization. The success of NASA’s Apollo Moon program in the 1960s had spurred a wave of student interest in math and science, and led to a generation of engineers, scientists, and teachers. But this tide had ebbed by the turn of the century. Bjelde’s generation had grown up with the space shuttle, and its endless revolutions around Earth in low-Earth orbit, not the derring-do of the Apollo explorers. Unlike Bjelde, who had chosen his major literally because aerospace was listed first alphabetically under engineering, most of the cool kids were not doing space anymore. They were into medicine, investment banking, or tech.
Musk had been among those leading the digital revolution. With PayPal he had helped take the banking industry online. And everywhere from communications to health care, the digital transformation had begun accelerating. Yet the stodgy aerospace industry seemed to be going backward. Companies in the United States and Russia still used the same decades-old technology to launch rockets into space, and the price kept going up. It seemed like things were going in the wrong direction, so Musk had founded SpaceX, and now a year later he sought to move from basic designs into developing hardware. Musk wanted Bjelde to help with the rocket’s electronics.
It was a lot for Bjelde, sitting in that frigid room, to take in. He had a comfortable government job, a promising academic career, and an active social life. SpaceX would strip all of that away. From talking to Kassouf about SpaceX’s intense environment, Bjelde knew coming to work for Musk would turn his life upside down. And Musk could offer no guarantees of success. How could such a small team build a rocket capable of reaching orbit, anyway? No privately funded company had ever succeeded at something like this before, and many had failed trying. After his interviews, Bjelde wondered if he’d been fed mostly empty promises.
A few days later, he received an email from Musk’s assistant, Mary Beth Brown, at one in the morning. Did he want a job? Bjelde realized this company operated at its own speed.
At first, Bjelde tried to negotiate for a higher salary. NASA paid him a comfortable $60,000 a year, along with his tuition. SpaceX offered less. For a chance to work with a visionary, on an inspiring project with a mission he could embrace, Bjelde would have to eat a salary cut. In thinking it over, he recalled a high school chemistry teacher named Ms. Wild, who had an eccentric bucket list. As a student, Bjelde saw her embrace opportunities when the chance arose, ticking off items such as belly dancing at the foot of the Egyptian pyramids. So this offer appealed to Bjelde and his sense of adventure, and he decided to seize this chance with Musk. After all, getting to Mars was a crazy hard goal. Nearly impossible. But not impossible.
“I’d love to think that we could live in a world where in our lifetime, during this short little blink of an eye where we get to be here, that we can make a rapid change to where you or I, or anyone, could have the means to afford it,” he said of traveling to Mars. “That’s something that’s right in front of us. It’s within our reach.”
Later, Bjelde learned that before his visit to SpaceX, Kassouf had gone to bat for him. The company needed someone who could build electronics for a rocket’s brains, the hardware and software to help the booster fly straight. Bjelde wasn’t even an electronics engineer. But Kassouf had told Musk about the long hours they’d worked together at U.S.C., the all-nighters, and his friend’s passion for solving hard problems. Kassouf had effectively put his badge on the table for his buddy— yes, Bjelde would lay it all on the line for SpaceX and the Falcon 1 rocket. In August 2003, Brian Bjelde, funny-colored eyebrows and all, officially became employee number fourteen at SpaceX.
From the forthcoming book Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX by Eric Berger. Copyright 2021. Printed with permission of William Morrow/HarperCollins, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
This excerpt originally appeared in the Feb. 15, 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.
CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX’s thousands of Starlink users could see “much higher download speeds” as the company begins implementing “system upgrades.”
Just the latest of the many ways that SpaceX’s first consumer-facing product continues to leapfrog stalwart, monopolistic internet service providers (ISPs) around the world, the move is a sign that Starlink customers may see the dividends of infrastructure improvements. For a huge portion of fixed internet service customers around the world, it’s more likely than not that local ISPs have more or less secured a monopoly of sorts, have enough control over regulatory apparatuses to kill competition in the cradle, and have next to no interest in investing profits back into their infrastructure or improving the experience for their customers.
Without strong, independent competition (or the imminent threat of it), consumers have no choice but to settle and ISPs use that fulcrum to their full advantage, instituting arbitrary data caps, raising prices, adding hidden service fees, investing only the bare minimum into infrastructure maintenance and upgrades, and offering – at best – mediocre customer support. With Starlink, the promise is virtually the opposite: it might cost a bit more, the price of access may be substantially higher, and beta internet service might be intermittent and finicky, but SpaceX’s singular directive is to improve the experience, expand service, and cut customer-facing costs as much as possible.
Of course, for the time being, SpaceX’s Starlink network is still firmly in the ‘beta’ phase of development, meaning that users will likely experience frequent outages, downtime, slow speeds, and high latency. That’s especially true as SpaceX works to substantially expand its customer base – likely happening already after the company opened (pre)orders to a large portion of the global populace.
It should go without saying that SpaceX’s expertise lies in aerospace engineering and development, not in high-volume network design and management. As such, it’s safe to assume that there will be many instances of teething problems as Starlink’s user base gradually expands, significantly increasing the strain on the network at peak hours.
At the moment, with proper setup, Starlink regularly offers beta users minimum speeds of 30-50 megabits per second (Mbps) and latency around 30-50 ms – not great mass-market fiber or even copper but far superior or comparable to most existing satellite, cellular, or DSL solutions. For some, that improves to download speeds of 100-150 Mbps or more and latency mostly indistinguishable from a wired connection. A few minutes of cumulative downtime is also fairly normal, though other users have recently seen download and upload speeds trending downwards while uptime and outages substantially improved. Notably, Starlink also remains free of data caps and intentional throttling, though that could be subject to change.
Musk also noted that Starlink service availability could spread to California’s Bay Area region by mid-2021, though he cautioned – as usual – that the service isn’t really meant for those with decent consumer connections already available – monopolistic provider or not. SpaceX was forced to pause Starlink launches after a rocket landing failure on February 15th but the company should be back in action as early as February 28th, hoping to pick up the pace and expand the constellation’s reach to near-global coverage before the end of the year.
As part of a NASA program that will select one or two commercial crewed Moon landers, SpaceX is busy testing Starship and prototyping hardware and most recently built and demonstrated an elevator “in a very short period of time.”
Known as the Human Landing System (HLS) program, NASA selected three providers – a Blue Origin-led consortium, Dynetics, and SpaceX – to build prototypes and compete for one or two follow-on contracts back in April 2020. SpaceX’s Starship offering was deemed the riskiest solution and the company received a middling $135 million to Dynetics’ ~$250 million and the “National Team’s” ~$570 million.
For their ~$820 million investment, it’s unclear what exactly NASA has gotten from its two best-funded teams aside from paperwork, a few completed design reviews, and two low-fidelity mockups mostly made out of cardboard, foam, and wood. Meanwhile, in the ten months since SpaceX received its $135 million, the company has built no less than eight full-scale Starship prototypes, performed a dozen or more wet dress rehearsals and static fires with said prototypes, and performed two powered hops and two high-altitude test flights. Now, to add to that list of low-cost achievements, SpaceX has also built and tested a functioning prototype of the elevator Starship would use to lift and lower astronauts to and from the lunar surface.
SpaceX’s proposal is certainly a unique one, with Starship being no less than several times taller and heavier than both its prospective competitors. However, Blue Origin’s extraordinarily complex three-stage, four-component lander – requiring a separate transfer stage, descent stage, ascent stage, and crew cabin – makes even Starship seem somewhat reasonable.
Notably, that massive 8-10m (25-32 ft) stack of separate spacecraft – crew cabin at the peak – would force NASA astronauts to transit a several-story ladder to and from the lunar surface. Far taller than the Apollo Program’s lander ladder, which NASA was already somewhat tepid on at the time, navigating a tall ladder in a clumsy, imprecise lunar EVA spacesuit would be extremely challenging and relatively risky. Dynetics is by far the least concerning solution in that regard, requiring what amounts to a footstool relative to SpaceX and Blue Origin.
In the National Team’s defense, SpaceX’s elevator approach is also undeniably risky, and it’s safe to say that demonstrated reliability would be an absolute necessity for NASA to ever accept that solution. Of course, SpaceX could feasibly include a hand-cranked backup system and a ladder on Starship’s exterior in the event of total system failure, but both backups would still pose risks similar to or greater than the National Team’s ladder.
However, the fact that SpaceX has already built and begun testing a Starship Moon elevator prototype makes it hard to believe that the company couldn’t ultimately produce a safe, reliable, redundant elevator between now and the mid to late 2020s.
On a separate note, it’s unclear when or where SpaceX built and tested the first Starship elevator. The photo NASA’s Mark Kirasich provider appears to show an elevator prototype situated inside a steel Starship ring with the sky visible, but nothing like that setup has been spotted at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory or former Cocoa Beach production facilities. That leaves its Hawthorne, California factory or, perhaps, a mysterious “Roberts Road” facility on Kennedy Space Center (KSC) land. Either way, it certainly appears that SpaceX has yet to show all its cards and is doing everything it can to convince NASA that Starship is worth additional HLS contracts.
NASA is expected to award contracts for full-up Moon lander demonstrations from one or two of the three candidates either “in the next few weeks” or sometime in April.
That demand for capital is currently driven by two major projects. One is Starlink, its broadband internet constellation, for which the company has launched more than 1,000 satellites but has plans to ultimately deploy tens of thousands more. The other is Starship, the next-generation reusable launch vehicle that the company is developing in South Texas that promises to launch much larger payloads at much lower per-kilogram costs.
Investors are particularly interested in Starlink, with its potential to generate billions in revenue from millions of customers worldwide seeking broadband access. SpaceX has seen strong interest in beta tests of the Starlink service in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, and is in the process of expanding service in those countries and others.
Starlink “is sending shock waves throughout the satellite industry as a whole,” said James Murray of PJT Partners, an investment banking company, during a Feb. 9 session of the 2021 SmallSat Symposium. The fast pace of its rollout, he argued, is disrupting the businesses of more traditional satellite operators.
“This is going to be a big year with the public getting to know they can get high-speed internet at least in some locations” with Starlink, said Ward Hanson, a lecturer in economics at Stanford University, during another panel at the conference Feb. 8. “You’re going to see space touching people’s lives like it did in the 1990s with satellite TV.”
SpaceX has also been able to ride a surge of investment into the space industry overall. Its funding rounds have paced the industry, but many other companies have raised significant funding through venture capital and, more recently, by merging with special-purpose acquisition companies, which allow privately-held companies to raise money and go public outside of the traditional initial public offering (IPO) process.
“It has never been a better time to raise money for ventures in and around space,” Murray said.
SpaceX has long said it has no interest in going public, either for the company itself or by spinning off Starlink. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk, asked about reports a year ago SpaceX was considering spinning out Starlink, said he is “thinking about that zero” and is instead focused on avoiding the bankruptcies other satellite constellation companies have suffered.
Musk, though, may be reconsidering that. “Once we can predict cash flow reasonably well, Starlink will IPO,” he tweeted Feb. 9. He didn’t forecast when that it would happen, but said in the near term the company would be spending heavily on the deployment of the system, which he called a “staggeringly difficult technical & economic endeavor.”
“SpaceX needs to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow over the next year or so to make Starlink financially viable,” he wrote in another tweet. “Every new satellite constellation in history has gone bankrupt. We hope to be the first that does not.”
A SpaceX vice president and one of Elon Musk’s first hires says that Falcon boosters will soon meet – and should ultimately beat – the CEO’s longstanding target for rocket reusability.
Years before SpaceX began regularly landing and reusing orbital-class Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters, Musk was fairly consistent in stating that a primary goal of the ambitious program (then routinely belittled by most involved in aerospace) was to develop a rocket with a lifespan of at least ten launches. When the current and most reusable iteration of Falcon rockets (Block 5) debuted in May 2018, he went even further, stating that SpaceX’s goal was to reuse Block 5 boosters 10 times with minimal refurbishment but ultimately fly them a hundred or more times with intermittent overhauls.
Now, a few months shy of three years after Block 5’s debut, SpaceX could be less than a week away from the second reuse of a seven-flight Falcon 9 booster, potentially leaving the company just a few months away from its first ninth-flight and tenth-flight milestones.
According to SpaceX Vice President of Mission Assurance Hans Koenigsmann, soon to retire (or already retired) after almost two decades with the company, there are no obvious showstoppers that could prevent reusable Falcon boosters from soaring past Musk’s ten-flight target. Speaking at the 47th Spaceport Summit (formerly Space Congress) on February 23rd, Koenigsmann stated (in his opinion) that “ten is [not] a magic number.”
“Until [SpaceX sees] more damage” showing up on recovered fleet-leading rockets, the former VP thinks that there is nothing fundamentally preventing Falcon boosters from flying more than ten times each. In other words, the fairly arbitrary ten-flight goalpost set by CEO Elon Musk years ago may ultimately be quite accurate, resulting in an operational fleet of rockets nominally capable of achieving that target – and then some.
Of course, the question of whether a Falcon booster can launch ten or more times is made irrelevant if SpaceX can’t simultaneously ensure that booster recovery is at least as reliable as the Block 5 design is sturdy. That fundamental challenge reared its head on February 15th when Falcon 9 booster B1059 – on its sixth flight – failed shortly before landing for unknown reasons. On the same conference panel, Koenigsmann couldn’t add much detail to the nonexistent public record, only offering the unfortunate euphemism that the rocket failed because of “heat damage.”
Indeed, SpaceX’s official webcast – and some solid unofficial analysis of available data – does suggest that Falcon 9 was traveling a bit faster (and thus receiving a bit more heat) than planned. But the so-called “heat damage” that may have destroyed the rocket is just a symptom of some other unmentioned trigger – be it incorrect angle of attack, bad avionics sensors, engine underperformance, or any number of other possible causes.
Either way, SpaceX is hoping for a quick return to flight after the booster landing failure. Pending the completion of Starlink-19’s anomaly investigation, its next two Starlink launches have been rescheduled on February 28th and March 7th, representing just a one or two-week delay.
SpaceX’s third high-altitude Starship prototype appears to have successfully ignited its trio of Raptor engines, boosting the odds of another launch and landing attempt later this week.
Following a prior attempt aborted before propellant loading began on February 22nd, SpaceX managed to turn around Starship serial number 10 (SN10) and its launch facilities for a second attempt ~24 hours later. Unlike Starship SN9, which went through four torturous weeks of scrubbed, aborted, and off-nominal static fire test attempts before finally being cleared for flight; Starship SN10 seemingly sidestepped a similar fate and ignited its Raptor engines without obvious issue after just two days of real attempts.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the test was truly successful. Long-distance, outside-looking-in observations leave little to no room for nuanced interpretation and the difference between a good and a bad test can be too subtle to detect with the naked eye.
Yesterday’s aborted attempt never made it past tank farm activation but could have been caused by ground support equipment (GSE), Starship itself, or something else entirely. Regardless, almost exactly 24 hours later, Starship SN10 fired up all three of its Raptor engines after a smooth, bug-free test flow. That single static fire simultaneously served as the massive steel rocket’s first wet dress rehearsal (WDR) with live (and flammable) liquid methane and oxygen propellant, making such a clean flow that much more impressive and encouraging.
Nevertheless, one of the last remaining residents of Boca Chica Village reported that they had received a standard safety ‘alert’ distributed by SpaceX around 40 minutes after SN10’s static fire. Those alerts serve as reminders for residents to stay away from their homes’ windows during Starship static fire testing to mitigate the risk of injury in the event that a given test goes wrong and a vehicle explodes.
That could mean that SpaceX quickly determined that Tuesday’s static fire wasn’t satisfactory, though it could just as easily be SpaceX hedging its bets in the event that it needs to redo SN10’s static fire on Wednesday, February 24th. If Tuesday’s test went well, SpaceX could turn SN10 around for a launch attempt as early as Thursday, moving to Friday if a hypothetical Wednesday static fire redux goes well. Stay tuned for updates (and hopefully confirmation from CEO Elon Musk).
WASHINGTON — A Falcon 9 booster failed to land after its most recent launch Feb. 15 because of “heat damage” it sustained, but a SpaceX official said he was confident that the boosters can be reused 10 or more times.
“This has to do with heat damage, but it’s a running investigation,” he said, adding that the company was “close to nailing it down” and correcting the problem. “That’s all I can say at this point in time.”
The failed landing broke a string of two dozen successful landings of Falcon 9 boosters, either on droneships or on land, dating back nearly a year. Video from the booster’s return showed that the engines did not shut down normally after the vehicle’s entry burn. The booster never made it to the droneship, and video from that ship showed a glow in the distance around the time the booster should have landed.
SpaceX hasn’t conducted a Falcon 9 launch since that failed landing. The next launch, of another set of Starlink satellites, is scheduled for no earlier than Feb. 28.
Other customers of the Falcon 9 are keeping tabs on the investigation. At a Feb. 19 briefing, Joel Montalbano, NASA International Space Station program manager, said the agency was in discussions with SpaceX about that investigation to see if it involved any issues that could affect the Crew-2 commercial crew launch scheduled for April 20. “As of today, we’re working with them to better understand what happened, and right now it’s just too early to say if we’re going to have any impacts” on that launch, he said.
Another government official saw no issues with the failed landing from a safety perspective. “This is what we call a successful failure,” said Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration, during the Spaceport Summit panel discussion. “It failed within the safety regime and they protected the public and protected public property.”
“For us, even when a system does not meet all mission goals, as long as it fails safely, in many respects that’s progress,” he added. “Each of these flights demonstrates something new and allows industry to move forward.”
The booster that failed was on its sixth launch. SpaceX has flown boosters up to eight times each, and Koenigsmann said the company will launch a booster for a ninth time in a few weeks. SpaceX has set a goal of being able to fly each booster 10 times.
That is not a hard limit, though, Koenigsmann said. “We’re learning a lot about refurbishment and we’re learning where the areas are where we need to pay attention to,” he said, such as the booster’s heat shield and engine components. “We’ve been learning with every single landing.”
He expected SpaceX to soon get a booster to the 10-flight mark, but suggested the company would not automatically retire it. “We will continue to look at that booster and make an assessment whether we can move forward with it,” he said, adding that, in his own opinion, the company would continue launching boosters after 10 flights, perhaps replacing some components that wear out.
“To me this is an engineering problem,” he concluded. “I don’t think the number 10 is a magic number.”
The follow-on effects of SpaceX’s failed February 15th booster landing have begun to roll in, triggering at least one to two weeks of delays for several upcoming Starlink launches.
Already delayed a few days and leapfrogging an even more beleaguered Starlink-17 launch originally scheduled as far back as late January, SpaceX Falcon 9 booster B1059 lifted off for the sixth time without issue last Monday. The rocket seemed to perform fine, separating as planned around 150 seconds after launch and leaving Falcon 9’s expendable upper stage to continue on its way to orbit with a ~16-ton (~35,000 lb) batch of 60 Starlink satellites.
During B1059’s “reentry burn,” a period where Falcon boosters reignite three of their Merlin 1D engines to both slow down and create a sort of shield with the rocket exhaust that burn produces, something went wrong. Unusual sparks quite literally flew during and after the last few seconds of the burn and the bright flare produced by Falcon 9’s engines dissipated far slower than usual. Eventually, when B1059 was expected to fire up for one final landing burn, all that was visible from a live camera on SpaceX’s drone ship was two flashes of warm light.
It’s hard to say for sure without an official comment from SpaceX but those flashes may have been the drone ship camera capturing the mid-air breakup and fast-fire (or explosion) of the Falcon 9 booster some 20-30 seconds before a planned soft landing. The odd behavior observed during and after the reentry burn could have also indicated a partial loss of thrust in one or more of B1059’s three reentry engines.
Unofficial analysis of the telemetry data included in SpaceX’s public webcasts more or less aligns with that theory, suggesting that Falcon 9 B1059 reentry burn lasted a nominal duration but didn’t slow the rocket down as much as it should have. As a result, B1059 would have been traveling faster and at a lower altitude relative to a nominal Starlink mission, which is exactly what’s observed in a comparison between Starlink-18 and Starlink-19, virtually identical launches completed 11 days apart.
That same telemetry also suggests that Falcon 9 B1059 may have lost thrust before its first burn completed, possibly explaining why the timing of launch events on SpaceX’s webcast and an official SpaceX.com launch timeline began to drastically diverge after MECO. MECO itself occurred about five seconds behind that schedule, gradually ballooning to a difference of more than half a minute for Starlink satellite deployment an hour after launch.
That observation increases the similarity between Starlink-5 and Starlink-19, both of which seemingly suffered a boost phase anomaly, off-nominal reentry burn performance, and booster loss well before landing. SpaceX’s Starlink-5 engine-out anomaly and failed booster landing grounded the company for about five weeks before it eventually returned to flight on April 22nd, 2020.
SpaceX appears to be working to mitigate the impact from Starlink-19 but a delay of at least 1-2 weeks is in order based on current schedules. Perhaps the most chronically delayed SpaceX launch of all time, Starlink-17 – originally scheduled to fly as early as “Jan. 29, Jan. 30, Jan. 31, Feb. 1, Feb. 2, Feb. 4, Feb. 5, Feb. 7, Feb. 17,” and Feb. 25 – is now on the calendar for no earlier than (NET) February 28th. Starlink-20, planned to launch in the last week of February, has been tentatively pushed to no earlier than March 7th. Both dates are assuredly subject – and likely – to change as SpaceX works to close out its Starlink-19 anomaly investigation and implement any necessary changes.