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Elon Musk reveals the heart of SpaceX’s Starship Super Heavy booster

CEO Elon Musk has revealed the first glimpse of the most complex, important, and unproven part of Starship’s record-breaking Super Heavy booster.

Known as the engine section, the aft end of Super Heavy is likely where the fate of early booster prototypes will lie. For the most part, Super Heavy is just a colossal duo of steel propellant tanks that is – to an extent – even simpler than its smaller Starship upper stage, which needs two types of Raptor engines, flaps, a bevy of maneuvering thrusters, and more. However, at the booster’s base, SpaceX must design, fabricate, and assemble a nightmarishly crowded and complex mechanical structure capable of mounting, fueling, and powering anywhere from 29 to 33 Raptor engines.

Simultaneously, that structure and all associated plumbing must withstand the force and pressure of more than 2000 metric tons of cryogenic liquid oxygen and the 7500 tons (16.5 million lbf) of thrust those Raptors can generate. That’s just the bare minimum, though.

Beyond the extraordinary mechanical stress it must withstand, Super Heavy’s thrust section also needs to be able to survive the hellish, violent environment created by almost three dozen powerful rocket engines on one side while the structure is effectively half-submerged in a cryogenic fluid, subjecting the puck and dome to brutal thermal conditions. Last but certainly not least, the exterior of Super Heavy’s thrust structure must be able to survive the mechanical and thermal hell of hypersonic atmospheric reentry with zero cushioning of the blow.

The forces involved are difficult to imagine. At full thrust, Super Heavy Booster 4’s 29 Raptor engines (eventually expanding to 33 on future cores) will likely produce more than 5500 metric tons (12.1 million lbf) of thrust, making it both the largest and most powerful rocket booster ever built or tested. At full thrust, those 29 Raptors will consume more than 17 metric tons (~38,000 lb) of cryogenic liquid methane and oxygen – equivalent to around ten Tesla Model 3s worth of propellant – every single second.

Including smaller secondary runs for each Raptor engine, Super Heavy’s engine section will likely contain miles of plumbing for highly flammable, explosive, and high-pressure liquid and gaseous methane and oxygen. All 29 Raptors also need to be connected to Super Heavy’s power supplies and avionics systems, demanding still more miles of wiring.

Ultimately, Musk says that the next generation of Starship’s Raptor engine – “V2.0” – “is a major improvement in simplification,” presumably making life a bit easier for the engineers that have to design Super Heavy’s hellish engine section plumbing and the technicians that have to fabricate and assemble it. However, there’s just no getting around the fact that a single rocket booster with dozens of engines is going to have an extraordinarily complex thrust section. Only time will tell if SpaceX’s extensive launch vehicle expertise is up to the task.

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SpaceX shifts South Texas focus to Starship’s orbital launch pad

Highlighted by a Wednesday jam-packed with important milestones, SpaceX appears to be shifting its focus in South Texas to the completion of Starship’s first orbital launch pad.

Boca Chica will be the first time in its history that SpaceX has faced the challenge of (or had the opportunity to) build an orbital launch complex from scratch after gaining a great deal of expertise modifying, reactivating, and rebuilding two existing pads in Florida and one in California. SpaceX’s Boca Chica facilities must also support what will be the most powerful rocket ever built (or tested) and a planned flight rate and turnaround capability that drastically exceeds anything the company (or anyone else, really) has attempted.

As a result, the site looks almost nothing like SpaceX’s other launch facilities. On top of the already significant hurdles faced, SpaceX is also attempting to complete its from-scratch facility in record time and work on Starship’s orbital launch site (OLS) really only began in earnest around the start of 2021. That aggressive work schedule has begun to clearly bear fruit in the last few months and arguably reached a bit of a local peak on Wednesday, July 28th.

A Tower Is Born

Kicking off the day after an aborted attempt on Tuesday, SpaceX began what would turn out to be an extremely busy Wednesday around 5am CDT (UTC-5) with the installation of the Starship launch tower’s ninth and final prefabricated section, effectively completing the structure’s skeleton. Unlike all other SpaceX pads, save for Pad 39A’s single-purpose Dragon and Crew Access Arm, Starship’s first orbital launch pad will lean heavily on a massive steel tower.

By all appearances, Starship’s launch tower will host an elevator-like carriage outfitted with several large arms on its exterior and will use those arms to stabilize, stack, fuel, and maybe even catch Starships and Super Heavy boosters. The tower will be integral to routine Starship launch operations, in other words.

With the installation of one last steel segment, that tower grew to a height of ~145m (~440 ft) and isn’t expected to get any taller after a 10m/30ft lightning rod is eventually added. SpaceX’s pad team can now begin the process of finalizing tower construction, ranging from adding cladding on its rectangular exterior and welding all nine steel sections together to filling its four legs with concrete.

Tank and Table

Just a few hours after the start of Tower Section #9 installation, a fleet of SpaceX’s self-propelled modular transporters (SPMTs) left the build site with two major pieces of orbital pad hardware in tow. For the first time in three months, one of those payloads was an OLS propellant storage tank built by SpaceX itself out of parts almost identical to those found on Starship. Since the first two ground support equipment (GSE) tanks were rapidly installed in April, activity on that front has been curiously stagnant.

Since modifications of those tanks began in-situ over the last month or so, the general consensus has been that a fairly minor design flaw or oversight was discovered well after production began, requiring a significant pause to rework and redesign the crucial pad components. In the meantime, work on contractor-built GSE tank shells meant to eventually insulate SpaceX’s thin cryogenic storage tanks continued unabated and one water tank and six shells have already been more or less completed. With any luck, GSE tank #5’s delivery to the OLS means that SpaceX has removed the roadblock(s) and is ready to move into plumbing and tank farm activation.

Simultaneously, a far more significant part known as the Starship ‘launch table’ also left SpaceX’s Boca Chica build site after nearly six months of around-the-clock assembly and outfitting. Designed to secure, fuel, and launch orbital Starships, the launch table has to be able to withstand the ~5000 metric ton (~11 million lb) weight of a fully-fueled Starship, hold Super Heavy in place during static fires and prelaunch ignitions that could produce ~7500 metric tons of thrust, and survive the unspeakable fury of 33 Raptor engines operating simultaneously.

Unlike all other major orbital Starship launch pad parts, the custom launch mount and table’s successful and near-total completion is an absolute necessity for any kind of orbital test flight or full-up Super Heavy static fire. Only part of the tank farm is truly necessary and the vast majority of the tower’s intended tasks can be completed with workarounds if neither are fully ready. Without the launch mount, however, testing much beyond what SpaceX has already accomplished is mostly impossible in the near term.

This table will eventually be installed on a tall, six-legged launch mount. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Raptor Invasion

Finally, while less pressing, SpaceX also accepted delivery of four Raptor engines on top of three more that were delivered to Boca Chica on Tuesday. According to CEO Elon Musk, Starship’s first orbital test flight(s) will happen with a full complement of engines installed, meaning that SpaceX will need to build, qualify, and ship at least 35 new Raptors for a single flight.

SpaceX recently completed assembly of the 100th full-scale Raptor engine at its Hawthorne factory and HQ – an encouraging sign that the engines needed for Starship’s orbital launch debut will be ready for flight sooner than later.

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SpaceX schedules first West Coast Starlink launch after a quiet July

Spaceflight Now reports that SpaceX has scheduled Starlink’s West Coast launch debut no earlier than August 10th, a mission that will also mark the company’s first launch in almost six weeks.

SpaceX completed its latest Falcon 9 launch – and 20th launch of 2021 – on June 30th, successfully deploying dozens of customer small satellites and three Starlink spacecraft as part of its second dedicated Smallsat Program ‘Transporter’ mission. Since then, the United States’ Eastern Range has been eerily quiet – as if in the eye of the storm that is SpaceX’s 2021 launch manifest. While there has been no official word one way or another, it’s been speculated that the range entered a period of routine – if inconvenient – maintenance that can often last weeks and during which no launches are possible.

Scheduled to launch no earlier than July 30th, Boeing’s second attempt at an uncrewed Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) of its Starliner crew capsule will apparently punctuate the end of that maintenance period and a return to regular operations for SpaceX. In the meantime, Spaceflight Now’s sources suggest that the company has been making the most of its downtime.

In the last two months, SpaceX has shipped two record-breaking Falcon 9 boosters – collectively responsible for 19 orbital-class launches in the last three years – from Florida to its Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB), California launch facilities. Drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) wrapped up an 8000 kilometer (~5000 mi) journey from its Florida home to California’s Port of Long Beach, while brand new drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) arrived at Port Canaveral to take OCISLY’s place after months of assembly.

All are part of an effort to prepare for an even busier second half of 2021. According to Spaceflight Now, H2 will begin no earlier than August 10th for SpaceX with Starlink’s first dedicated polar launch (known as “Starlink 2-1”) and the first Falcon 9 mission out of Vandenberg in nine months. Combined, Falcon 9 boosters B1049 and B1051 and drone ship OCISLY should be more than capable of pushing SpaceX’s SLC-4E pad to its limits, maxing out around one launch per month for the foreseeable future.

Last month, SpaceX FCC filings also revealed plans for a number of new dedicated Starlink launches from its Cape Canaveral LC-40 pad – unexceptional if it weren’t for the fact that details in the documents implied that those upcoming missions will also be targeting polar orbits. In other words, after successfully launching more than 1600 operational Starlink satellites into mid-inclination equatorial orbits, SpaceX now appears to be laser-focused on building out the constellation’s polar ‘shell.’

Comprised of ~1100 satellites, that polar shell will ultimately give Starlink the ability to deliver internet to aircraft and ships virtually anywhere on Earth – two established connectivity markets that are ripe for disruption. To do so, however, most or all polar Starlink satellites will need optical interlinks – lasers that allow spacecraft to route communications in space and serve customers beyond the reach of land-based ground stations. Thus far, excluding two early 2018 prototypes, SpaceX has launched 13 Starlink satellites with prototype laser links.

SpaceX’s first ten space laser Starlink prototypes. (SpaceX)

CEO Elon Musk has stated that Starlink V2 satellites are set to debut in 2022 and will all have optical interlinks. However, the upcoming “Starlink 2-1” mission’s internal name does raise the question of whether it’s referring to the start of a new constellation ‘shell,’ the first batch of V2 satellites, or both. SpaceX job postings have also hinted at “Starlink V1.5” satellites, which could potentially be as simple as existing V1 satellites outfitted with laser links.

Ultimately, only time, SpaceX, or Elon Musk will tell and the company’s first dedicated Starlink launch is scheduled as few as two weeks from now.

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SpaceX is almost ready to start turning Starship’s launch tower into ‘Mechazilla’

After a burst of activity and custom part deliveries, SpaceX appears to be almost ready to start turning Starship’s vast launch tower into what CEO Elon Musk has described as a “Mechazilla.”

Over the last few weeks, a number of new components have begun to quickly take shape, offering the first real glimpse of what SpaceX’s latest (hopeful) innovation might look like and how it could function. Earlier this year, Musk revealed plans to forgo landing legs entirely on earthbound Super Heavy boosters – and, potentially, Starships – by using a giant tower with arms to quite literally catch the rockets out of the air.

Those unintuitive plans have triggered wild speculation as the aerospace fans that follow SpaceX closely attempted to imagine what such a solution might look like – often engaging in a sort of vague back-and-forth with Musk himself as the CEO occasionally replied to fan-made depictions and renders.

Months after the reveal, though, parts of that tower’s rocket-manipulation mechanisms have begun to arrive on a near-constant stream of flatbed trucks and something is being assembled on a concrete pad previously used as a Starship landing zone. Two distinct structures are in work at the LZ: one a large framework assembled out of banana yellow metal tubes and the other a (for now) flatter black structure being assembled out of prefabricated components reminiscent of crane parts and trusses.

Now standing some 135m (~440 ft) tall, SpaceX’s Starship ‘launch tower’ has also been assembled from 9 different segments with what looks like six vertical rails running most of the length of three of its four rectangular legs. Since they were first spotted months ago, it’s long been assumed that those tracks will support some kind of elevator-like carriage meant to cling to the tower’s exterior. That carriage would then be outfitted with at least three (and probably five or more) large arms capable of catching, stabilizing, and fueling Starship.

Over the last week or so, SpaceX has also been hard at work completing the ninth and final section – believed to be the roof – of the launch tower. In the last few days, that four-legged tower section has been outfitted with an interesting appendage that itself was then fitted with several massive sheaves (i.e. pulleys). That hardware will likely become part of a high-power pulley system that will pull the arm carriage up and down the tower, allowing it to grab, lift, and catch Starships and Super Heavy boosters.

By all appearances, SpaceX is preparing to install the launch tower’s last prefabricated section, likely raising the tower to its final ~145m (~475 ft) height. It’s possible that a crane of some kind will be permanently installed on top of the tower but it currently looks like SpaceX intends to rely exclusively on the tower’s arms to install, stack, stabilize, fuel, and (maybe) catch Starship and Super Heavy.

Likely tower arm parts. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
The framework of one of several tower arms. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Tower section #9. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
(NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

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SpaceX just finished Starship’s 100th Raptor engine

SpaceX says its Hawthorne, California rocket factory and headquarters has completed the assembly of Starship and Super Heavy’s 100th Raptor engine.

SpaceX began developing Raptor behind the scenes as far back as 2012 and 2013, when a small team successfully tested a full-scale Raptor preburner – a small but important subcomponent – at NASA’s Stennis Space Center (SSC) facilities. Three years later, in September 2016, CEO Elon Musk revealed the first integrated static fire of a Raptor prototype – though it would later become clear that that prototype was a subscale engine about the same size as Falcon 9’s Merlin 1D.

After two and a half years of subscale testing that helped SpaceX refine startup and shutdown sequences and the general operation of what quickly became the world’s most thoroughly tested full-flow staged combustion engine, SpaceX graduated to full-scale testing. Designed to produce about twice the thrust (~200 tons/440,000 lbf) of its subscale predecessors, the first full-scale Raptor engine shipped to SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas test facilities and completed its first static fire days later on February 3rd, 2019.

Notably, the very first full-scale Raptor prototype (SN1) not only survived its first test but lived long enough to complete several more, ultimately reaching SpaceX’s minimum thrust target four days after its first static fire. A vibration issue would soon require several months of troubleshooting and iterative build-test-fail cycles but Raptor was ultimately ready to support its first brief Starhopper hop tests in July and August.

Approximately 15 months after Raptor’s first flight, Starship prototype SN8 successfully lifted off with three engines, one of which performed a near-flawless four-minute burn to apogee. Eventually, six months after SN8’s successful ascent but failed landing, Starship SN15 successfully landed, demonstrating Raptor’s ability to reignite mid-flight. Since SN15’s May 2021 success, SpaceX appears to have completed anywhere from 20 to 35+ new Raptors as part of a dramatic acceleration in production to meet the needs of at least two imminent orbital Starship test flights – both of which will need approximately 35 engines each.

Per its label, RB16 – now better known as the 100th Raptor engine overall – is the 16th Raptor Boost engine built by SpaceX. “Boost” refers to the particular variant – in this case, a Raptor engine specifically designed for an outer ring of 20 engines on each Super Heavy booster. Unlike Raptor Center (RC) engines, the outer ring of Raptor Boost engines are fixed in place against the rocket’s skirt and aren’t designed to vector their thrust (i.e. gimbal). According to Musk, all sea level-optimized Raptor engines will ultimately produce approximately 230 tons (~510,000 lbf) of thrust.

Relative to almost any other large-scale engine development program in the last half-century, Raptor’s 29-month 100-engine milestone is an extraordinary achievement. The closest comparable engine is Blue Origin’s BE-4, which is expected to produce up to ~240 tons (~540,000 lbf) of thrust, uses an efficient (albeit slightly less so) combustion cycle, and relies on the same methane and oxygen propellant. Full-scale BE-4 testing began 16 months before Raptor in October 2017 and Blue Origin has reportedly only built and tested nine prototypes in the almost four years since. According to Musk, as of May 2021, SpaceX is now building more than a dozen Raptors – including prototypes and flight engines – every month.

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reveals Starship factory upgrade plans

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX is about to begin the construction of “a much larger high bay” adjacent to the existing structure, an 82m (~270 ft) tall building used to complete assembly of Starship and Super Heavy boosters.

According to Musk, the newest addition to SpaceX’s arsenal of Starship production facilities will be located “just north” of an existing high bay, which measures approximately 30m by 25m (100′ x 80′). Most importantly, Boca Chica’s high bay is tall enough for SpaceX to use a bridge crane to stack 50m (165′) Starships and ~70m (~230′) Super Heavy boosters – far more efficient and protected than using wheeled or tracked cranes to assemble rockets out in the open.

High bay construction, September 2020. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Construction of the existing high bay began in May 2020 and was more or less complete by the start of 2021. The structure was truly finished in April 2021 with the installation of a heavy-duty bridge crane, though work continues to this day on what CEO Elon Musk has described as a bar and viewing area to be located at the top of the bay.

Musk’s assertion that the new facility will be “much larger” can be interpreted a number of ways. There’s a distant possibility that SpaceX will build a true NASA-style Vehicle Assembly Building like the colossal VAB used to fully assembled Saturn V and the Space Shuttle at Kennedy Space Center. For Starship, that would require a structure at least ~130m (~430 ft) tall – more than 50% taller than the current ‘high bay’.

Note the large swath of mostly empty space below the two assembly bays.
NASA’s VAB versus SpaceX’s Boca Chica ‘high bay’. (NASA/Reddit)

More likely, Musk means that SpaceX will effectively be building a second similarly tall high bay but with far more usable floor space. The existing structure is large enough to fit four or far different Starship or Super Heavy ‘stacks’ at once, though SpaceX’s current setup appears to allow two or three vehicle sections to be stacked and worked on simultaneously. In his July 25th tweet, Musk implicitly noted that SpaceX does have a significant amount of mostly unused space that could be perfect for another assembly building directly north of the high and mid bays.

Generally speaking, SpaceX has a plot of land around 170m (~560′) by 190m (~620′) that’s currently half-used as a Starship scrapyard and overflow lot, but most of the space is empty. Even if SpaceX only turned half of that land into a sort of vertical Starship assembly line, it would still boost high bay floor space by at least a factor of five or six – and possibly 8-10x. With that much extra space enclosed in a permanent structure, it’s likely that this new facility could mark a new evolution in SpaceX’s ever-changing Starship factory.

Update: Elon Musk says that SpaceX’s second Starship ‘high bay’ will be “a little taller” than the first but have a “much bigger base” and multiple “gantry” (bridge?) cranes that will run the full length of the building.

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SpaceX Falcon Heavy to launch NASA ocean moon explorer, saving the US billions

In a move that’s likely to save the US taxpayer several billion dollars over the next few years, NASA has carefully extricated a mission to one of Jupiter’s ocean moons from the claws of its own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

Known as Europa Clipper, the six metric ton (~13,300 lb) spacecraft will instead launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket for less than $180M. Had Falcon Heavy not been ready or NASA shied away from the challenge of switching launch vehicles, sending the ~$4.25 billion orbiter to Jupiter could have easily added more than $3 billion to the mission’s total cost. Instead, Europa Clipper will be able to launch one or two years earlier than SLS would have been ready and at a cost that’s practically a rounding error relative to the alternative.

Measuring approximately 3100 km (~1940 mi) in diameter, Europa is approximately 10% smaller and 30% less massive than Earth’s Moon. Both are similar balls of rock with solid metallic cores. However, based on observations taken over decades by spacecraft and Earth-based telescopes, odds are good that Europa also has a vast liquid water ocean insulated by 10-30 km (6-20 mi) of ice so cold that it’s as hard as granite.

Scientists estimate that Europa’s saltwater ocean is dozens to 100+ km (~62 mi) deep, covers the moon’s entire surface, and holds more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined. Signs of a liquid ocean under Europa’s crust (and the crust of numerous other outer solar system moons, as it would turn out) were especially surprising because of the implication that those moons possessed vast heat sources. In the case of Europa, it’s believed that Jupiter’s immense gravitational pull and the moon’s close orbit are balanced in such a way that Europa is heated as those tidal forces violently stretch and squeeze its interior.

In an orbit 30% lower than Europa, tidal heating is so aggressive that the moon Io is littered with titanic volcanoes and lava lakes more than 200 km (~120 mi) across – so large that waves have been spotted on its surface with Earth-based telescopes. In short, because Europa appears to be in the right place to have enough – but not too much – tidal heating, it’s believed to be one of the best potential harbors of extraterrestrial life and Europa Clipper’s primary purpose is to pursue that potential astrobiological treasure trove.

Europa Clipper’s history is a truly bizarre one. Championed almost singlehandedly by fundamentalist Christian and former Republican Representative John Culberson, it’s almost certain that the mission would have never come together and never secured enough funding to proceed. Culberson’s singular goal: determine if humanity is (or is not) alone in the universe. If life can independently evolve twice in the same average solar system, the logic goes, it would practically guarantee that life will be omnipresent anywhere we look.

Culberson’s original vision was an orbiter (Clipper) that would effectively scout Europa for a lander that would follow just a few years later. Incredibly, he appears to have all but guaranteed that Europa Clipper will launch. However, he lost a reelection bid in 2018, casting the lander component into limbo before proper funding or commitments could be ascertained. It now seems likely that the future of Europa Lander will depend almost entirely on what Clipper does (or doesn’t) find.

Europa Clipper is now scheduled to launch on an expendable Falcon Heavy rocket no earlier than a two-week window set to open in October 2024. As part of the politicking to secure the billions of dollars needed to fund the mission, Culberson originally shackled Europa Clipper to NASA’s SLS rocket – now half a decade behind schedule and set to cost more than $23 billion before its first launch. However, it appears that SLS is so mismanaged and uncharacterized that even its infamously zealous, pork-motivated Congressional cheerleaders weren’t willing to put up a public fight to retain the SLS rocket’s only confirmed non-human payload.

Ultimately, on launch alone, Falcon Heavy’s Europa Clipper launch will likely save taxpayers more than $2 billion – the likely minimum cost of a single SLS Cargo launch. Due to issues with the rocket, Ars Technica also reports that Europa Clipper and SLS would have required at least $1 billion in modifications and upgrades to safely fly, meaning that choosing SpaceX will likely end up saving NASA more than $3 billion – equivalent to almost three-quarters of the entire Europa Clipper mission’s price tag.

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SpaceX’s fourth Falcon booster delivery this year hints at rare production uptick

For at least the fourth time in 2021, SpaceX has shipped a new Falcon booster from its Hawthorne, California headquarters and factory to an expansive test and development campus in Central Texas.

By all appearances, SpaceX’s latest delivery could imply that the company is on track to experience its first Falcon booster production uptick in four years. Thanks almost exclusively to the overwhelming success of Falcon reusability, SpaceX has been decreasing booster production year over year since 2017 while (on the whole) still significantly increasing its annual launch cadence. However, that downward booster production trend may have finally come to an end in 2021.

On July 21st, spaceflight journalist Eric Berger spotted a SpaceX Falcon booster – almost impossible to miss on the road – traveling eastbound towards El Paso on a Texas highway. Designed from the start with a maximum diameter (3.6m/12′) explicitly limited to allow Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy stages to be easily and cheaply transported by road, SpaceX has taken advantage of that capability by making Falcon rockets some of the most extensively tested launch vehicles on Earth.

Most notably, every single Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy booster and upper stage SpaceX has ever built at its Hawthorne HQ has shipped to McGregor, Texas for qualification testing before being cleared to launch. The exact nature of that qualification testing is unknown but, at minimum, every SpaceX-built stage must eventually complete a clean static fire test before the company deems it qualified for flight and ships it to one of three launch pads.

Before integrated static fire testing, SpaceX also separately tests every single Merlin 1D, Merlin Vacuum, Draco engine, and cold gas thruster before they’re installed on their respective Falcon first stage, second stage, fairing, or Dragon spacecraft back in California. However, Falcon engines, fairings, second stages, and Dragon spacecraft are all small or well-packaged enough to be unassuming on the road. Only Falcon boosters – measuring some 4m (~13 ft) wide and 56m (~190 ft) long and usually wrapped in solid white or black plastic – are routinely spotted in the wild by members of the public.

Those regular public spottings provide the only real glimpse available behind the curtain of SpaceX’s prolific rocket production. Beyond a mishmash of observations from members of the public and the occasional tidbit from CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX – a private company in a very competitive industry – provides no official information about how many Falcon stages it produces each year. That leaves it up to unaffiliated fans to collate and track that activity.

In particular, one Reddit user went to the effort of combing through a decade of those observations to tabulate SpaceX’s annual Falcon first stage production – including Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters – since 2010. From 2010 to 2017, booster production consistently grew year over year, ultimately peaking at 13 – more than one booster per month – in 2017. Since 2017, booster production has consistently declined, dropping to just five boosters completed in 2020 – the lowest figure since 2013.

Of course, despite building just five new boosters in 2020, SpaceX completed a record 26 Falcon 9 launches, demonstrating just how much of a paradigm shift booster reusability has been for the company. Notably, while booster production has drastically decreased, SpaceX still has to manufacture a new expendable upper stage for every Falcon launch, meaning that – for the most part – Hawthorne is likely as busy as – and soon to be busier than – it was around the 2016-2018 peak.

In a bit of twist, though, that booster production downtick may have bottomed out in 2020. Since May 2020, SpaceX appears to have shipped at least 8 or 9 boosters* from Hawthorne to McGregor. Less than a month ago, a new booster – believed to be Falcon 9 B1069 – went vertical in McGregor ahead of its first wet dress rehearsal and static fire. Less than three weeks later, another new Falcon booster was spotted ready for transport outside of Hawthorne – likely the same booster spotted on its way to McGregor on July 21st.

*Including F9/FH boosters B1061, B1062, B1063, B1064, B1065, B1066, B1067, and B1069

In 2021, SpaceX has delivered one Falcon Heavy (likely B1066) and two Falcon 9 boosters (B1067 and B1069) to McGregor. The mystery booster seen in Hawthorne on July 18th – now likely inside a McGregor hangar as of publishing – is the fourth Falcon first stage to roll out of Hawthorne this year. If SpaceX maintains that average over the next five months, it could ship 6 or even 7 Falcon boosters in 2021 – marking the first apparent production uptick since 2017.

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SpaceX Crew Dragon set to make room for Boeing’s Starliner do-over

SpaceX and NASA are on track for the Crew-2 Dragon spacecraft currently docked to the International Space Station (ISS) to perform a “port relocation” maneuver early Wednesday, effectively opening the door for Boeing’s Starlink flight test do-over.

Scheduled to launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket no earlier than (NET) July 30th, Boeing’s Starliner will be flying for the first time since the spacecraft’s near-catastrophic Orbital Flight Test (OFT) debut in December 2019. During Starliner’s inaugural test flight, a combination of inept Boeing software development, shoddy quality control, and inexplicably lax NASA oversight allowed the spacecraft to launch with inoperable software.

As a result, things went wrong mere seconds after Atlas V – which performed nominally – deployed Starliner. Almost as simple as using the wrong clock, the first software fault – something that would have been instantly caught with even the most rudimentary integrated systems test – caused Starliner to think it was in a different part of the OFT mission and waste much of its fuel with thousands of unnecessary thruster firings.

Aside from pushing Starliner’s maneuvering thrusters beyond their design limits, those unplanned and unexpected misfirings also threw the spacecraft off course, obfuscating Boeing and NASA’s ability to communicate and command the spacecraft and troubleshoot the situation at hand. Eventually, the company regained control of Starliner, but not before it had burned through most of its propellant reserves – precluding plans for to rendezvous and dock with the ISS.

Less than three hours before reentry, Boeing also uncovered a separate thruster-related software issue that could have caused the Starliner capsule to lose stability and re-impact its expendable trunk section after separation.

Ultimately, with so many issues and a failure to gather any kind of data related to operations at and around the ISS, NASA thankfully forced Boeing to plan to repeat OFT with Orbital Flight Test 2 (OFT-2). Scheduled to launch in December 2020 as of the second half of that year, OFT-2 ultimately slipped – both for scheduling and technical reasons – to March, June, and finally July 30th, 2021.

Crew Dragon C207 became the first US spacecraft to switch ISS ports in April 2021. (NASA)

More than 19 months after Starliner’s ill-fated debut, NASA and Boeing are now almost ready for the spacecraft’s critical do-over. For unknown reasons, though, NASA and/or Boeing apparently need (or prefer) Starliner to use a specific docking port – the same port SpaceX’s second operational Crew Dragon spacecraft is currently docked to. As a result, SpaceX and NASA have scheduled a port relocation maneuver around 7am EDT (UTC-4) on Wednesday, July 21st.

SpaceX’s first relocation occurred in early April to prepare for the arrival of a second Crew Dragon later that month. When Crew-1 Dragon departed a few weeks after the maneuver, it would leave the station’s zenith (space-facing) port free for a Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft scheduled to arrive around one month later. Due to the station’s geometry and port layout, only the zenith port allows its robotic Canadarm2 arm to unload unpressurized cargo from Dragon’s trunk.

Already at the forward port, the Crew-2 Dragon will thus be moving to the zenith port for Starliner’s brief 1-2 week stay at the ISS. However, as may have become clear, Crew Dragon will then have to re-relocate to the forward port for any future Cargo Dragon missions – one of which happens to be scheduled to launch with an important unpressurized payload as early as August 29th.

Regardless of why, it’s hard to ever complain about seeing Dragons fly. Tune in around 6:30 am EDT (10:30 UTC) to watch Crew Dragon C206 maneuver around an orbital space station.

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SpaceX tops off Starship launch tower during Blue Origin crew launch briefing

On Sunday morning, SpaceX began the process of installing the last prefabricated section of Starship’s skyscraper-sized ‘launch tower’ around the same time as startup Blue Origin kicked off a preflight briefing for its first crewed suborbital launch.

Though both events are almost entirely unconnected and have no immediate impact on each other, the simultaneity almost immediately triggered comparisons between one of the most important media briefings in Blue Origin’s 21-year history and an average busy day at SpaceX’s South Texas Starship factory and launch site. Almost exclusively funded by Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos since it was founded in September 2000, around two years before SpaceX, Blue Origin is on the cusp of its first crewed launch less than two weeks after Virgin Galactic completed its first fully-crewed test flight above 80 km (~50 mi).

Approximately 600 miles southeast of Blue Origin’s Van Horn, Texas launch and test facilities, in a different corner of the vast state, SpaceX was preparing for the latest in a long line of steps towards the completion of an orbital launch site for Starship – potentially the first fully reusable orbital rocket ever built.

First revealed more than three months ago in a cryptic post from owner Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is scheduled to launch passengers on its New Shepard rocket for the first time ever, marking the end of an extraordinarily long development period. Designed to be fully reusable, New Shepard is a small single-stage rocket powered by one liquid hydrogen and oxygen-fueled BE-3 engine capable of producing approximately 500 kN (110,000 lbf) of thrust at liftoff. Designed exclusively for the purpose of ferrying a few tourists above a mostly arbitrary 100 km (~62 mi) line separating Earth’s atmosphere and “space,” New Shepard is about the same diameter as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets but is just 15m (~50 ft) tall.

The small rocket launched for the first time in April 2015 and reached an apogee of ~94 km but instability ultimately destroyed the first New Shepard booster during its first landing attempt. Blue Origin successfully launched and landed New Shepard on its next test flight in November 2015, culminating in Bezos’ infamous “Welcome to the club!” comment after SpaceX successfully recovered a Falcon 9 booster for the first time one month later.

As of July 2021, Blue Origin has completed just 15 New Shepard test flights – 14 of which were fully successful – in six years. In the same period, SpaceX successfully recovered an orbital-class Falcon 9 booster for the first time, reused a Falcon booster on a commercial satellite launch, debuted Falcon Heavy, reused several orbital Cargo Dragon capsules three times each, debuted Crew Dragon, became the first company in history to launch astronauts, completed its first operational astronaut launch for NASA, hopped three Starship prototypes, flew five Starship prototypes to 10-15 km, successfully landed four Raptor-powered Starship prototypes, rolled out Starship’s first completed booster prototype, completed more than 100 successful orbital launches, flown the same Falcon 9 booster ten times (versus New Shepard’s record of seven flights), reused orbital-class boosters 68 times, created the world’s largest satellite constellation, and far, far more.

Along those lines, on Saturday, July 17th, SpaceX teams attached a massive crane to the seventh prefabricated section of a ‘launch tower’ that could eventually support Starship and Super Heavy stacking – and maybe even catch ships and boosters. On Sunday, not long after daybreak and about an hour before Blue Origin’s New Shepard-16 preflight briefing, that tower section lifted off under the watchful eye of several unofficial cameras operated by NASASpaceflight, LabPadre, and others. By the end of Blue Origin’s briefing, most of which involved executives or senior employees reading from scripts and none of which offered a look at actual flight hardware or “astronaut” preparations, the eighth launch tower section was mostly in place, creating a structure some 135m (~440 ft) tall.

By the end of NASASpaceflight.com’s unofficial six-hour stream, the outlet’s excellent and unaffiliated coverage of SpaceX erecting part of a relatively simple tower for the seventh time had been viewed more than a quarter of a million times. By the end of Blue Origin’s official preflight briefing for a crewed launch set to carry the richest person on Earth, the company had accrued around 20,000 views on YouTube.

Some might see ten times as many viewers flocking to an unofficial live stream of fairly mundane SpaceX construction over a briefing for the first crewed launch of a fully-reusable suborbital rocket and scoff. For those who watched both broadcasts, it’s likely less than shocking that spaceflight and rocket fans almost universally sided with a livestream showing something – anything! – happening over what amounted to a camera pointed at five people reading (mostly stale) statements off of teleprompters.

Barely 24 hours away from Blue Origin’s most significant launch ever, the company – save for a few low-res clips from Jeff Bezos – has yet to share a single new piece of media highlighting the mission’s actual New Shepard rocket, crew capsule, astronaut preparations, flight suits, launch pad, or any of the other dozens of things most spaceflight fans – and people in general – tend to get excited about. For whatever reason, Blue Origin has also worked with Texas to shut down the only quasi-public viewing area less than 10-20 miles away from New Shepard’s launch pad despite never having done so in 15 test flights.

SpaceX, on the other hand, may not have always been a perfect neighbor in Boca Chica but the company has mostly accepted the buzzing, near-continuous presence of spaceflight fans and members of the media who come to South Texas to see Starbase in person. More recently, SpaceX has actively let at least two media outlets (NASASpaceflight and LabPadre) install and operate several robotic cameras overlooking Boca Chica’s Starship factory and pad.

It’s impossible to condense it into one or two simple differences but it’s safe to say that SpaceX’s relative openness and a general willingness to engage with media and let public excitement and interest grow uninterrupted (when possible) is part of the reason that mundane SpaceX goings-on can accumulate a magnitude more interest than on unofficial channels than an official briefing for the most important event in Blue Origin’s history.

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