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SpaceX to upgrade Dragon with the most immersive window ever launched into space

SpaceX and Inspiration4 customer Jared Isaacman have revealed a substantial and unexpected design change made to the Crew Dragon spacecraft that will carry the billionaire and three guests into orbit later this year.

Reminiscent of the beloved “Cupola” (Italian for dome) built by the European Space Agency (ESA) and installed on the International Space Station (ISS) in 2010, SpaceX says it has designed a spectacular ‘glass dome’ window add-on for Crew Dragon. Thanks to some level of newfound commercial interest in free-flying Crew Dragon missions, in which the spacecraft would operate as its own miniature space station for several days, SpaceX concluded that it could fully remove the spacecraft’s docking adapter.

In its place, SpaceX has apparently designed a huge, monolithic, dome-like window that promises to offer a viewing experience likely unmatched in the history of spaceflight.

A Russian cosmonaut is pictured enjoying the ISS Cupola. (NASA)

While the ISS Cupola is reminiscent of Crew Dragon’s glass dome, the two windows are only similar in the sense that they’re both space-based viewing windows. Beyond that, the Dragon Dome is more akin to the ultimate realization of the platonic ideal that ESA engineers tried to achieve with the Cupola. Featuring about a roughly 2:1 ratio of framework and structural support material to glass, the Cupola’s central circular window has an uninterrupted diameter of 80 cm (2.6 ft), while the whole assembly has a total internal diameter of ~2m (6.6 ft) and a depth (the ‘height’ of the conical windowed area) of about 50 cm (1.6 ft).

Assuming SpaceX is explicitly designing the dome to integrate with Crew Dragon’s existing International Docking Adapter (IDA) support structure, it could have a diameter as large as 1.4m (~4.5 ft) and a depth of 60 cm (~2 ft; assuming a perfect hemisphere for maximum strength). If SpaceX’s official render is correct, the dome will also be monolithic, meaning that the glass window itself would be completely uninterrupted by structural supports.

A NASA astronaut monitors a SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft through the ISS Cupola. (NASA)
Assuming a semi-modular design, a Dragon’s ‘dome’ would likely be installed where the innermost red ring (a vacuum seal) is located – a diameter of 1.3-1.4m (4.3-4.6 ft). The ISS Cupola’s total internal diameter is about the same as the larger red nosecone seal. (NASA)

Much like the Cupola, which has foldable ‘petals’ that serve as shades and micrometeorite shields when the module isn’t in use, Crew Dragon’s glass dome would be safely enclosed inside the spacecraft’s nosecone. It’s unclear what material the dome would be made out of, given that large, monolithic, bulletproof domes are a technology that doesn’t currently exist.

In a live March 30th event celebrating the final crew selection, SpaceX director Benji Reed stated that NASA has been closely involved with with development of Dragon’s dome window. Most notably, he strongly implied that flight-proven Crew Dragons would be able to swap between dome and docking hardware with enough ease that a Dragon flown with a dome on a SpaceX tourist mission could still be modified to support NASA astronaut launches, thus ensuring commonality within the Dragon ‘fleet’ SpaceX is building.

SpaceX has implied that its Dragon Dome will debut as early as September 2021 on billionaire Jared Isaacman’s Inspiration4 mission – currently on track to become the world’s first fully private astronaut launch.

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Inspiration4 announces crew for private SpaceX Crew Dragon mission

Inspiration4 crew

WASHINGTON — The private venture that purchased a SpaceX Crew Dragon flight to low Earth orbit has finalized the crew for that mission, scheduled to launch as soon as September.

The Inspiration4 mission, which describes itself as the “world’s first all-civilian mission to space,” revealed the crew that will accompany its sponsor, entrepreneur Jared Isaacman, during a March 30 event at the Kennedy Space Center. Isaacman announced the mission Feb. 1, starting a pair of contests to select two people who would fly with him.

One of those people is Sian Proctor, a scientist and educator who has participated in a number of terrestrial “analog astronaut” missions. She won the seat called “Prosperity” by establishing an online store through Isaacman’s company, Shift4 Payments, and submitting a video judged by an independent panel.

The second is Chris Sembroski, a Lockheed Martin employee in the Seattle area. He won the “Generosity” seat by participating in a sweepstakes that raised money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The fourth member of the crew, previously announced, is Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant at St. Jude who, as a child, was treated for bone cancer there. At 29, Arceneaux would be the youngest American in space.

“We promised a crew representing some of the best of humanitarian qualities, exemplifying our mission ideals of leadership, hope, prosperity and generosity,” Isaacman said. “I’m pleased to report that we’ve accomplished that goal.”

The four will start training as a group immediately, he said. That training includes time in Crew Dragon simulators, going through all aspects of the mission, as well as centrifuges to simulate the accelerations of launch and reentry and “other forms of stress testing.”

In addition to announcing the crew, Isaacman and SpaceX outlined the details of the mission itself. Launch is scheduled for no earlier than Sept. 15, slightly earlier than the original announcement of the fourth quarter of this year. The spacecraft will remain in orbit for three days, flying in an orbit at the same inclination as the International Space Station — 51.6 degrees — but in an orbit as high as 540 kilometers, more than 100 kilometers above the station.

That particular orbit, Isaacman said, will be the highest people have been above the Earth’s surface since the final shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. “It should send a message,” he said, one of going beyond the ISS. “We’re ready to go back to the moon, and we’re ready to go beyond the moon to Mars. Extending out a little bit farther than where we’ve been for some time right now is a good step in the right direction.”

The three-day mission duration, he added, “is a good balance between the capabilities of the Dragon spacecraft and how much time you want to spend in a relatively small space for a couple days together.”

Benji Reed, senior director of human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said the company moved up the mission slightly to September to accommodate the Crew-3 launch for NASA later in the fall. “This crew, with training, we believe will be ready by September, as well as the Dragon,” he said. “It works out very well with our manifest.”

The Inspiration4 mission will use the same Dragon spacecraft, called Resilience, currently docked at the ISS for the Crew-1 mission. That spacecraft is currently scheduled to return to Earth April 28, assuming the Crew-2 mission launches to the station on schedule April 22. “We feel very good about the timeframe we’re working in” to refurbish the spacecraft for Inspiration4.

Crew Dragon cupola
An illustration of the Crew Dragon spacecraft outfitted with a cupola in place of the docking adapter used for space station missions. Credit: SpaceX

Besides refurbishing the spacecraft, SpaceX will install an additional window on the spacecraft, a viewing port modeled on the space station’s cupola that will replace the docking adapter under the spacecraft’s nose cone. Since the Inspiration4 mission will not dock with the station, that adapter is not needed.

“It’s awesome,” Reed said of the cupola. Qualification and testing of the cupola is in progress, and Reed said SpaceX will ensure that its installation doesn’t preclude using the spacecraft for later missions, such as those to the station that will require the reinstallation of the docking adapter.

Inspiration4 will be the first Crew Dragon mission for a customer other than NASA, but it is not the only one on its manifest. Axiom Space will fly four people to the ISS on its Ax-1 mission in early 2022. Space Adventures previously announced a Crew Dragon mission that would fly well above the station, but that space tourism company has not provided any updates on its schedule for that mission.

“We’re trying to deliver an awful lot of messages with this mission,” Isaacman said. “When this mission is complete, people are going to look at it and say this was the first time that everyday people could go to space.”

However, Inspiration4 may have overestimated the interest in the mission. Proctor was one of only about 200 people who participated in the Prosperity competition, which required no expense beyond the time setting up an online store and producing a video. Sembroski was selected from nearly 72,000 entries, which could be purchased at the rate of 10 entries per dollar, up to 10,000 entries per person.

That limited interest has hurt Inspiration4’s efforts to raise money for St. Jude. The mission has raised a little less than $13 million for the hospital as of March 30, most of which was raised when the sweepstakes was open in February. That’s well short of the goal of $100 million set when Inspiration4 was announced Feb. 1.

“We’ve helped drive a significant amount of donations to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,” Isaacman said. “This fundraising effort is really far from over. We’ll be continuing throughout the year.” He didn’t elaborate on those future fundraising plans.

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Elon Musk announces $30M donation to Cameron County, TX schools, City of Brownsville

Elon Musk has announced he will donate $30 million to Cameron County Schools and the City of Brownsville, Texas. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO announced that additional details would come next week.

“Am donating $20M to Cameron County schools & $10M to City of Brownsville for downtown revitalization,” Musk Tweeted Tuesday morning. “Details to follow next week.”

The area is home to SpaceX’s South Texas launch site, often referred to as “Starbase” or the “Boca Chica Launch Site.” The private facility is home to SpaceX’s rocket production facility and spaceport and is located in Texas’s southernmost region near the U.S.-Mexico border. It has been the home of eight SpaceX launches, with the first coming in April 2019 and the most recent on March 3rd, 2021.

Additionally, Musk plans to alleviate some energy concerns in the area by partnering with Magic Valley Utility, which will supply the area with clean, wind power. Musk also said that Tesla and SpaceX are attempting to increase solar power by ten-fold. “We’re also aiming to increase solar power from 1MW to 10MW, paired with Tesla Megapacks, for continuous power,” he said.

In early March, Musk indicated that SpaceX would be “creating the city of Starbase, Texas” by incorporating the village of Boca Chica to the Starship production complex. The two areas together would be called, Starbase, Texas, and Cameron Country Judge Eddie Trevino, Jr., said he has been in contact with SpaceX. Elon Musk’s rocket-building entity contacted Judge Trevino Jr. just days before Musk’s tweet, he said.

“If SpaceX and Elon Musk would like to pursue down this path, they must abide by all state incorporation statutes. Cameron County will process any appropriate petitions in conformity with applicable law,” Trevino said in a statement.

Musk also said that he hopes that his Boring Company can install a loop from Brownsville International Airport to South Padre Island and Starbase, based on a suggestion from a Twitter follower.

Musk has donated millions of dollars to notable causes over the past several years. Most recently, donations to the Khan Academy, the Barstool Fund for Small Businesses, and to Boston researchers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted Musk’s extensive list of charitable causes. He has also pledged a $100M reward to carbon capture development, a project that he announced earlier this year.

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Elon Musk talks upgrades after SpaceX Starship launches, explodes in midair

SpaceX has completed its fourth Starship test flight in as many months, offering the latest glimpse into the often frustrating reality of a highly iterative, hardware-rich rocket development program.

Right on schedule, SpaceX Starship prototype serial number 11 (SN11) lifted off from Boca Chica, Texas at exactly 8am CDT (UTC-5) – all but completely cloaked in a thick layer of fog. While unfortunate for any unofficial observers (and possibly SpaceX’s own desire to gather video footage of a test flight), SpaceX has experience launching rockets (namely Falcon 9) in thick fog thanks to its Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site on the California coast.

As such, fog theoretically poses no fundamental threat to rockets like Starship, but SN11 still took the opportunity to explore new and exciting failure modes shortly before touchdown. CEO Elon Musk himself didn’t take long to weigh in and has even offered some details and a schedule for upgrades planned for SpaceX’s next-generation launch vehicle – upgrades hoped to alleviate whatever issues led to Starship SN11’s premature demise.

First and foremost, due to the fog, the general public saw virtually nothing throughout the launch attempt. Remote streaming cameras set up near SpaceX’s launch facilities – now, excitingly, with the company’s own permission – did manage to catch some level of detail, providing the bare minimum level of insight needed to speculate on SN11’s failed landing attempt.

Per an official webcast and NASASpaceflight’s unofficial “Danger-Close Camera,” installed a few hundred feet from the launch site with SpaceX’s permission, Starship lifted off at exactly 8am and had a seemingly nominal ascent, reaching a familiar 10 km (6.2 mi) apogee around four minutes later. SN11 then arced over onto its belly and free-fell for ~100 seconds. Aside from a few intermittent fires burning on some of the rocket’s three Raptor engines, not an uncommon sight since SN8 first flew, nothing appeared particularly out of the ordinary.

At T+5:49, however, things rapidly went wrong. Still belly-down, Starship SN11 attempted to reignite all three of its Raptor engines to propulsively flip into a vertical landing position. After at least one seemingly successful reignition, SpaceX immediately lost onboard video and telemetry feeds. Based on NASASpaceflight’s pad-adjacent camera, a substantial explosion followed one or two seconds after that attempted ignition, ending Starship SN11’s test flight around 20 seconds earlier than any of its three late siblings.

Debris began to visibly hit the ground another 5-10 seconds after that explosion was first heard, all but guaranteeing that Starship SN11 exploded in midair. At this time, it’s impossible to know what exactly went wrong, but there are two clear possibilities. Starship SN11 could have failed to reignite two or even all three Raptor engines, triggering onboard flight termination system (FTS) explosives designed to prevent the rocket from straying beyond a safe zone of operations. More likely, Starship suffered a substantial failure during that reignition and flip attempt, triggering an almost immediate explosion that tore the rocket apart around half a kilometer (~1500 ft) above the pad and landing zone.

Shortly after, Musk said that Raptor “engine #2 had issues on ascent” that were notable but not enough to explain a violent midair failure and confirmed that whatever went wrong came “shortly after landing burn start.”

Musk offers Starship upgrade schedule, details

Having suffered a failure a bit less than six minutes after launch, Starship SN11 – the fourth three-engine, high-altitude prototype – was ironically the farthest from a successful landing before something went wrong: one step forward, two steps back. While unfortunate, SpaceX still got some amount of data and uncovered one or several new failure modes – arguably the two of the most important primary goals of any developmental flight test program.

Further, Musk revealed that SpaceX intends to complete and roll Starship SN15 to the launch pad just “a few days” from now – certainly earlier than expected. While the SpaceX CEO didn’t go much into detail, he reaffirmed that SN15 would bring substantial upgrades, stating that “it has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software, & engine[s].”

Musk also touched on SpaceX’s near-term plans after SN15’s upgrade path, confirming that Starship prototypes from SN20 onwards will be “orbit-capable” with even more improvements. That seemingly delineates three clear ‘blocks’ of Starship prototypes, beginning with SN8 through SN11, proceeding with SN15 through SN19, and (nominally) gearing up for true orbital-class test flights with prototype SN20 and its successors. All told, SN11’s midair demise appears likely to be just a small blip in front of a jam-packed, well-structured series of Starship upgrades and flight tests just over the horizon.

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SpaceX crashes another Starship prototype

Starship SN11

WASHINGTON — SpaceX launched its fourth Starship prototype in less than four months March 30, only to have the vehicle apparently crash once again.

The Starship SN11 vehicle lifted off at approximately 9 a.m. Eastern from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site, despite heavy fog that made it all but impossible to see the vehicle ascend. The SpaceX webcast of the flight relied on video from onboard cameras.

The flight appeared to go as planned initially, with the vehicle going up to 10 kilometers altitude, then descending back to the landing pad. The onboard video, though, stopped 5 minutes and 49 seconds after liftoff, just as the vehicle reignited its Raptor engines for landing.

“It looks like we’ve had another exciting test,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said on the webcast, several minutes after the loss of video. “We’re going to have to find out from the team what happened.”

He did not confirm that the vehicle had been lost, but independent video of the landing showed debris falling around the test site at the time of landing. SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk later acknowledged the vehicle was destroyed, tweeting that “At least the crater is in the right place!”

“Looks like engine 2 had issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn, but, in theory, it wasn’t needed,” he added. “Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.”

The flight was the fourth of a Starship prototype to an altitude of 10 kilometers or more since early December. All four of those vehicles were lost either on landing or shortly thereafter. On the previous test, of Starship SN10 March 3, the vehicle appeared to land intact, only to explode less than 10 minutes later.

This flight was delayed a day after an FAA safety inspector was not able to get to Boca Chica before the window closed for the test. A revision to the FAA’s license for that series of Starship tests, dated March 12, requires an FAA inspector to be at Boca Chica for the tests.

The FAA added that provision after SpaceX violated conditions of its launch license on the SN8 test flight in December, which took place even after the FAA denied SpaceX’s request for a waiver for maximum allowed risk to the uninvolved public. While that flight caused no damage outside of SpaceX’s test facility, the FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation into the incident and delayed approval of the next test flight, SN9, in early February.

On March 25, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and its aviation subcommittee, respectively, wrote to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson about that incident. “Given the high-risk nature of the industry, we are disappointed that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action,” they wrote.

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SpaceX Starship eyes Tuesday launch after FAA communication breakdown causes delays

Two new sourced reports suggest that SpaceX’s fast-moving approach to Starship development and a shocking level of naivety and ineptitude on behalf of the FAA’s regulatory responsibilities combined to delay the latest Starship test flight.

As previously discussed on Teslarati, SpaceX was clearly and publicly targeting a Starship launch as early as 12pm to 5pm on Monday, March 29th after unknown issues delayed a Friday attempt. Those plans were writ large on SpaceX’s own website and via CEO Elon Musk’s tweets a full three days before launch and confirmed by road closures, notices to mariners, and the FAA’s own flight restrictions and advisories 24-48 hours prior. Around 11am CDT Monday, Musk revealed that SpaceX had been forced to call off the day’s launch attempt because an FAA-required inspector was “unable to reach” Boca Chica in time.

Now, per reports separately corroborated by The Verge reporter Joey Roulette and Washington Post reporter Christian Davenport, a clearer picture of what exactly transpired is available.

Roulette first broke the news, offering a better look at a portion of the debacle. Per “a source,” SpaceX had apparently told the FAA inspector – who had been waiting all week for Starship SN11’s launch debut – that plans for a Monday recycle had been canceled. The inspector then flew home to Florida. However, as things often do and have, the situation rapidly changed and SpaceX suddenly found itself in a position to launch on Monday.

According to the apparent FAA-side source, SpaceX dropped that change of plans on the agency’s lap late on Sunday, leading the inspector to “[scramble]” onto a Monday flight that was somehow too late to arrive before the 5pm CDT end of Starship’s test window. In a statement, the FAA chided SpaceX, stating that the company “must provide adequate notice of its launch schedule to allow for a safety inspector to travel to Boca Chica.”

Under that description of events, it would be hard not to find SpaceX clearly in the wrong. Mere hours of notice – and only offered late on Sunday evening – would make it difficult for anyone to abruptly arrange a 1300-mile, multi-stop flight. At the same time, though, someone capable of singlehandedly scrubbing an entire rocket launch attempt on a whim (or an accident) is obviously not just “anyone” and a functional regulatory apparatus probably wouldn’t leave the entirety of that substantial responsibility up to a single employee.

As it so happened, Roulette’s source only offer part of the picture. According to Christian Davenport and his sources, SpaceX (or someone) did tell the FAA inspector that it was safe to head home on Friday because the company was struggling to secure road closures from Cameron County for a Monday launch attempt. Apparently, the issue was so extreme that SpaceX wasn’t sure if a launch on any day of the next week would be possible.

However, sometime early on Sunday morning, SpaceX secured a road closure for a Monday Starship launch attempt. According to Davenport, SpaceX emailed the FAA inspector but he “didn’t see the email,” which presumably served as a notice of plans for a Starship launch attempt. Logically, SpaceX then began attempting to call the FAA (inspector?) but didn’t get an answer or call back until “late Sunday night.”

Via Cameron County’s explicitly public road closure announcement website, Monday’s road closure was granted no later than 11am CDT. Assuming SpaceX emailed the FAA inspector around then, that email effectively served as a notice of launch plans more than 24 hours before the window was scheduled to open. If SpaceX didn’t somehow forget to email until hours later, Davenport’s description implies that it took SpaceX hours of constant phone calls before the FAA finally responded.

If that series of events is accurate, as it seems to be, it’s a searing indictment of systematic ineptitude and laziness on behalf of the FAA. Having changed SpaceX’s Starship launch license to necessitate the presence of an FAA inspector mere weeks ago, thus giving a single person the power to scrub an entire launch attempt, the regulatory agency appears to have entrusted the entirety of that responsibility to a single “inspector.” Knowing full well that SpaceX works continuously with multiple shifts after almost two years of managing Starhopper and Starship tests, hops, and launches, the FAA then failed to ensure that some kind of communications infrastructure was in place to keep SpaceX appraised about the availability of a single inspector it now fully hinged on for all future Starship launches.

If, as the phrasing in both reports suggests, the FAA allotted a single government inspector to preside over all future Starship launches, that alone would bely a ridiculous level of ineptitude and naivete (or ignorance). To then trust that single person with nearly all of the responsibility of maintaining contact with SpaceX, day and night, would be akin to the FAA consciously guaranteeing that a disruptive breakdown in communications like this one would happen.

All told, SpaceX likely also needs to do some recalibration to better mesh and coexist with the FAA’s glacial reaction time and pace of work. However, the FAA is not going to be winning any favors if it continues to manage SpaceX’s Starship licensing in a manner as inept and cavalier as it has been. Far more importantly, if the FAA – one of the largest, best-funded regulatory bodies responsible for ensuring the safety of some of the most complex systems and vehicles on Earth – is unable to perform tasks as rudimentary as scheduling and contingency planning, it’s difficult to imagine how that same office could be trusted to regulate – and make safer – systems as extraordinarily complex as launch vehicles.

With any luck, the FAA will prove that the last four months have been minor bumps in the road to reliably and professionally licensing and regulating SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle. However, after two separate demonstrations of systematic mismanagement over a mere four Starship launch attempts, it’s becoming harder and harder to soundly argue that the FAA still deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Assuming the FAA inspector is on schedule, Starship SN11’s next launch attempt is now scheduled between 7am and 3pm CDT (UTC-5) on Tuesday, March 30th.

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Congress raises concerns about FAA’s handling of Starship launch license violation

WASHINGTON — As SpaceX gears up for another test flight of a Starship prototype, the Federal Aviation Administration is facing new scrutiny from Congress for how it handled SpaceX’s violation of its launch license on an earlier test flight.

SpaceX had planned to launch its SN11 Starship vehicle March 29 from its Boca Chica, Texas, test site. That flight will be similar to those of previous Starship prototypes, going to an altitude of 10 kilometers before landing on a nearby pad.

However, SpaceX called off the March 29 launch attempt because an FAA inspector could not arrive to observe the flight during a five-hour window. “FAA inspector unable to reach Starbase in time for launch today,” tweeted Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, using the proposed new name for the Boca Chica site. “Postponed to no earlier than tomorrow.”

The requirement for an FAA presence on site at the test site is new for the SN11 launch. The latest version of SpaceX’s FAA launch license for the Starship suborbital test flight program, issued March 12, allows those test flights to take place “only when an FAA Safety Inspector is present at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch and landing site.”

The change stemmed from an investigation into SpaceX’s violation of that launch license during the SN8 test flight in December. SpaceX proceeded with the flight despite the FAA determining that the flight profile exceeded the maximum allowed risk to the uninvolved public for “far field blast overpressure” in the event of an explosion. While the SN8 vehicle exploded upon landing, there were no reports of damage outside of the SpaceX test site.

FAA directed SpaceX to investigate the incident, delaying the flight of the next Starship prototype, SN9. That investigation included “a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline,” the FAA said in a Feb. 2 statement.

The FAA cleared SpaceX to proceed with launches, with SN9 and SN10 launching and landing — and both exploding upon or shortly after landing — on Feb. 2 and March 3, respectively. Neither caused any damage outside of the SpaceX test site.

The FAA’s response to SpaceX’s launch license violation, including the lack of any penalties beyond the investigation, prompted criticism from two key members of Congress. In a March 25 letter to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) sought to “register our concerns” with the incident. DeFazio is chair of the House Transportation Committee and Larsen the chair of its aviation subcommittee.

“Given the high-risk nature of the industry, we are disappointed that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action,” they wrote after summarizing the incident and investigation.

In the letter, DeFazio and Larsen called on the FAA to “resist any potential undue influence on launch safety decision-making” by taking “all the time and actions necessary” to evaluate proposed launches. They also urged the FAA to implement “a strict policy to deal with violations of FAA launch and reentry licenses” that includes civil penalties, and to evaluate its current approach to safety oversight and enforcement for commercial space activities.

“While the commercial space transportation sector is crucial to our Nation’s future, at no point should a commercial space launch jeopardize public safety,” they wrote.

The FAA, asked March 29 about the letter, said only that the agency “is in receipt of the letter and will respond directly to the committee.”

While the House Transportation Committee’s oversight includes the FAA, traditionally that has excluded the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which is in the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee. The transportation committee, though, has shown a growing interest in commercial space transportation, including several hearings in recent years that have examined the industry, including how the growing number of launches and spaceports affects commercial aviation.

In a speech at the March 23 meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), Dickson indirectly referred to the SN8 incident. “We can’t take all the dangers out of commercial space transportation, but I also know that we have to make it as safe as humanly possible,” he said. “Sometimes, that means we have to set the parking brake and make sure that we’re all aligned.”

Dickson said there have been six commercial launch mishaps since the beginning of the 2021 fiscal year. That includes the three Starship test flights that ended in explosion upon or shortly after landing, as well as a failed Falcon 9 landing at sea during an otherwise successful launch Feb. 15. The other two are the launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.2 in December that just missed reaching orbit and an aborted test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, also in December.

“When mishaps do happen, which is not uncommon in a fast-moving new field, they should be successful failures, meaning that the failure was consistent with, in this case, the FAA’s analysis that showed that the public would be kept safe,” Dickson said.

“So far, there have been six mishaps this fiscal year, some that ended in spectacular fireballs and went viral on social media,” he said, “but all six of these were successful failures, because we were able to protect public safety.”

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SpaceX ramps up Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy booster testing in Central Texas

In the latest twist in the saga of SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas testing facilities, a new Falcon 9 booster has managed to sneak past a network of unofficial observers to create a whole different kind of rocket traffic jam.

On the heels of a single day (March 19th) filled with at least five different tests of Merlin and Raptor engines and a Falcon Heavy booster, SpaceX was apparently satisfied with the results from the Heavy center core’s final major qualification test. On March 24th, the day after yet another five-test day in McGregor, SpaceX hooked up a crane to B1066 and brought the booster horizontal to prepare for transport to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

That very same day, a local resident and avid McGregor hawk spotted a new Falcon 9 booster arriving (or recently uncovered) at the test facility. Three days later, the Falcon 9 booster was brought vertical and installed on the facility’s largest test stand for a routine qualification static fire. For McGregor, particularly after a relatively slow 12-18 months of Falcon first stage testing, having two new boosters simultaneously onsite – let alone two new boosters vertical within ~72 hours of each other – is a massive change of pace.

In January 2021, some two months after arriving in Texas, the second of at least two new Falcon Heavy side boosters (B1064 and B1065) went vertical at McGregor, quickly wrapped up its static fire test campaign, and arrived at Cape Canaveral by the end of the month. Roughly a week later, Falcon Heavy Flight 4’s center core (B1066) arrived in McGregor and went vertical a few weeks after that. It’s possible that B1066 performed a static fire test that month, but the booster did unequivocally fire up on March 19th.

Days later, Falcon 9 B1067 is vertical on the same McGregor booster test stand and could potentially fire up anywhere from a few days to a few weeks from now. Combined with an October 2020 static fire of the first Falcon Heavy Flight 4 side booster static fire, all three of the massive rocket’s first stage boosters will likely be qualified and ready for flight within a week or two.

Notably, for McGregor, three new Falcon booster static fire tests in approximately three (or even four) months is a huge change of pace. Thanks almost exclusively to the success of Falcon Block 5 reusability since its 2018 debut, SpaceX booster production has consistently declined year over year, dropping to just five new booster deliveries in 2020 – the lowest production rate since 2013.

SpaceX has been ramping up Falcon fairing and expendable upper stage production to levels never seen before to achieve a record 26 launches in 2020, potentially explaining that record low. However, in 2021, McGregor appears to be on track to test and ship three new boosters in four months (or less), extrapolating to an annual cadence of nine or more booster tests.

Aside from last week’s F9 B1067 surprise, SpaceX needs to build, test, and deliver at least one more Falcon Heavy center core between now and the end of Q3 for an October launch. If SpaceX can partially maintain the throughput implied by delivering B1066 and B1067 to McGregor just seven weeks apart, it’s not infeasible that the company could manage the first uptick in Falcon booster production since 2017.

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SpaceX’s fourth high-altitude Starship launch rescheduled on Monday

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has delayed Starship serial number 11’s (SN11) high-altitude launch debut from Friday to Monday to best ensure that the company can “land & fully recover” the 50-meter-tall steel rocket.

First and foremost, the weekend will allow SpaceX times time for “additional checkouts” and scour Starship SN11 and the data it’s produced during testing for any red flags or minor issues. While plans for a same-day static fire and launch didn’t pan out on Friday, March 26th, SpaceX did manage the first half, firing up just one of Starship’s three Raptors to verify the health of the replacement engine after a Thursday Raptor swap. The test marked the first time SpaceX has intentionally fired up just one of the Raptors installed on a three-engine Starship prototype, so the delay will provide extra time to ensure that all three are still looking good.

The weather in Boca Chica, Texas has also taken a turn for the worse in the last few days, so the extra few days will also (hopefully) allow time for wind, visibility, and precipitation conditions to improve. According to Musk, Starship SN11 is now scheduled to fly as early as Monday “afternoon” and, as usual, SpaceX will offer live coverage of the fourth high-altitude launch and landing attempt beginning a few minutes before liftoff.

With a little luck, the Starship prototype will be able to continue a trend of iterative improvement and one-up Starship SN10 with a slightly softer landing and no explosion minutes after touchdown. Stay tuned for updates both here and on SpaceX’s social media platforms to catch the official webcast.

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SpaceX Starship to attempt same-day static fire and launch after engine swap

Lacking only an official confirmation, SpaceX appears to be readying the fourth full-size Starship prototype to attempt a Raptor static fire test and launch on the same day.

That hopeful day in question happens to be today – Friday, March 26th. If all goes according to plan, Starship serial number SN11 will fire up its three Raptors, verifying their health after an engine was apparently swapped out on Wednesday. Possibly just an hour or two later, after detanking and retanking liquid oxygen and methane propellant, the Starship prototype could lift off on SpaceX’s fourth high-altitude test flight.

Late on March 24th, SpaceX rolled Raptor engine SN46 from its Boca Chica factory to the launch pad, where Starship SN11 is installed on one of two suborbital launch mounts. The engine move and subsequent installation came as a surprise, as nobody managed to catch an implied Starship SN11 engine removal in the two or three days prior (extremely thick fog being the likeliest cause).

The implied issue with the Raptor that was removed is likely to blame for a several-day launch delay that followed Starship’s seemingly successful Monday static fire. After that test, SN11’s launch was initially scheduled as early as Tuesday or Wednesday, only to slip day by day as the week proceeded. SN11 first rolled to the launch pad on March 8th, just 18 days ago, so launch delays don’t come as a huge surprise given that the current factory-to-launch record for a three-engine Starship is 33 days, three static fires, and one engine swap.

If SN11 manages a same-day static fire and launch on March 26th, it will still crush that record by almost 50%. To an extent, the feat also isn’t unprecedented. On March 3rd, Starship SN10 aborted its first true launch attempt milliseconds after Raptor ignition when the rocket’s flight computer detected indications that they were producing too much thrust. Amazingly, instead of scrubbing the launch attempt, SpaceX loosened Starship SN10’s thrust limit parameters and tried again, successfully lifting off just three hours after the abort.

Despite the abort and immediate hands-free recycle, Starship SN10 subsequently became the first prototype of its kind to launch to 10 km (6.2 mi), free-fall back to earth, and land in one piece. Minutes later, a fire and harder landing than expected conspired to make SN10 explode, but the test flight was arguably still a massive success. Simultaneously, the flight indicated that Starships are technically capable of successfully flying hours after a post-ignition launch abort, demonstrating an extraordinary level of robustness for clustered high-performance rocket engines.

As such, while it’s probably reasonable to assume that Starship SN11 wont launch today, SN10 proved that there is nonzero chance of a static fire and launch hours apart. Additionally, given just how close SN10 go to unequivocal success (i.e. a soft and survivable landing), Starship SN11 has the best chance yet at at launching, landing, and making it through the ordeal without exploding.

Starship SN11’s third static fire and first launch attempt are both currently scheduled sometime between 7am and 7:30pm CDT (UTC-5). Stay tuned for updates as we wait for SpaceX’s official confirmation and an evacuation notice of Boca Chica Village residents.

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