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SpaceX to build world’s most advanced rocket engine factory in Central Texas

CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has plans to build the “most advanced rocket engine factory in the world” in Central Texas to support the growing needs of Starship and Super Heavy.

If all goes according to plan, that facility could also become the highest-output rocket factory ever built, churning out hundreds of Raptor engines each year to outfit a vast interplanetary fleet of Starships and the earthbound Super Heavy boosters that will send them on their way to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Musk revealed plans for a dedicated Raptor engine factory on July 10th – shortly after showing off an impressive group of at least ten qualified Raptor engines staged inside a production tent at SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship factory. In just the three days since that photo, SpaceX has installed three Raptor engines – possibly all of which were visible in the July 10th family photo – on the first functional Super Heavy booster prototype.

A day later, Musk revealed that SpaceX had finally settled on a crucial aspect of Super Heavy’s design, determining that operational Starship boosters will ultimately be outfitted with 33 more or less identical Raptor engines. Following another surprise Musk reveal earlier this month, that means that every two-stage Starship vehicle will require 39 to 42 Raptor engines – 36-39 sea level variants and three vacuum-optimized engines with larger nozzles.

While Raptor’s current design isn’t quite there, Musk says that SpaceX will debut an upgraded “Raptor 2” engine in the not too distant future, raising maximum thrust to 230 tons (~510,000 lbf). Aside from the removal of a few structural components required for engine gimballing on 20 booster Raptors, every engine on Starship – save for 3-6 vacuum variants – will thus be identical.

According to Musk, a new cutting-edge SpaceX factory located at the company’s expansive McGregor, Texas rocket development and testing facilities factory will ultimately mass-produce between 800 and 1000 Raptor 2 engines per year. Raptor Vacuum production will remain at SpaceX’s Hawthorne, California headquarters alongside work on mysterious “new, experimental designs.” Under the new paradigm sketched out by Musk, Raptor would mirror SpaceX’s Merlin engine family – comprised of two commonized sea level and vacuum variants (Merlin 1 and Merlin Vacuum) for more than a decade.

A visual comparison of Merlin 1D (optimized for sea level) and Merlin Vacuum. (SpaceX)
Raptor and Raptor Vacuum, September 2020. (SpaceX)

With just a single high-volume variant required, Raptor 2 production could be extraordinarily efficient and would easily outpace any other large liquid engine production in history at 800-1000 engines completed each year. Technically, at its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, the Soviet Union was producing hundreds of R7 (Soyuz) booster engines annually and upwards of 1000+ per year if one counts the several different kinds of engines on each R7/Soyuz booster. However, the annual production of a single variant of any other large liquid rocket engine in history has never come close to the targets set out by Musk for SpaceX’s Raptor 2 factory.

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SpaceX Super Heavy booster survives first major test

A SpaceX Super Heavy booster prototype has survived its first major test seemingly without issue, potentially opening the door for a static fire test with several Raptor engines as early as this week.

Not long after the latest line of propellant storage implements was transported from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas factory to Starship’s first orbital launch pad, the company officially closed the one highway to the pad and nearby beach. By ~4:30pm CDT (UTC-5), the first major test of an integrated Starship booster was under way and clouds of cryogenic vapors were pouring off of Super Heavy B3’s thrust (aft) dome as the humid air came in contact with steel cooled to around –330°F (–200°C).

While technically known as a cryogenic proof test, Booster 3’s first major challenge looked more like a basic pressure test. Curiously, only small amount of frost – the telltale sign of a ‘cryo proof’ – formed on the outside of Super Heavy’s ~65m (~215 ft) tall propellant tanks in two hours of activity, indicating that SpaceX likely chose a more cautious approach to Booster 3’s first cryo proof.

In short, Booster 3 was likely filled with a few hundred tons of liquid nitrogen relative to the more than 3000 tons its tanks could easily hold and the fraction of that total capacity SpaceX’s suborbital launch site can actually supply. Teams have been working around the clock for months to outfit Starship’s first orbital launch site with enough propellant storage for at least one or two back to back orbital launches – on the order of 10,000 tons (~22M lb) – but the nascent tank farm is far from even partially operational. That’s left SpaceX with its ground testing and suborbital Starship launch facilities, which appear to be able to store around 1200 tons of propellant.

Assuming the suborbital pad’s main liquid oxygen and methane tanks can also both store and distribute liquid nitrogen, which isn’t guaranteed, SpaceX thus has the ability to fill approximately 30-40% of Super Heavy B3’s usable volume. Frost lines aren’t always a guaranteed sign of fill level but if they’re close, SpaceX likely filled Booster 3’s tanks just 5-10% of the way during the rocket’s first cryoproof.

Based on loud, visible venting that occurred throughout the process, it’s likely that Super Heavy’s first cryo proof was more focused on pressure testing with just a small taste of the true thermal shock, loads, and general mechanical stress Starship boosters will have to withstand when loaded with thousands of tons of propellant and generating thousands of tons of thrust with dozens of Raptor engines.

Following July 12th’s test, Super Heavy B3’s next steps could either be one or several additional cryo proofs or a static fire test with an unknown number of Raptor engines installed. The booster completed Monday’s testing with one Raptor installed, while the most engines ever tested simultaneously is three. SpaceX has yet to update backup test windows scheduled from noon to 10pm CDT on July 13th, 14th, and 15th, any of which could be used for additional cryo proof or static fire testing.

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Elon Musk reveals SpaceX’s newest rocket-recovery drone ship

CEO Elon Musk has released the first official video of A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG), the newest member of SpaceX’s fleet of ‘autonomous spaceport drone ships’.

Purely from a visual perspective, drone ship ASOG represents a substantial departure from older siblings Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) and Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY). Whereas both JRTI and OCISLY expanded upon Marmac 300-series barges with rectangular wings and a variety of power generation and propulsion add-ons in a slew of tacked-on shipping containers, drone ship ASOG appears to be substantially refined. That process of gradual refinement is an integral part of SpaceX’s modus operandi and ASOG thus likely represents a culmination of years of lessons learned from 76 booster recovery attempts and 66 successful landings.

Perhaps even more significantly, Musk says that ASOG might by SpaceX’s first fully automated drone ship – potentially capable of propelling itself to and from recovery zones and securing landed Falcon boosters without hands-on human intervention.

Physically, drone ship ASOG appears to be a fair bit sleeker and more optimized than its siblings. On ASOG, the substantial amount of extra equipment required to turn a barge into a ‘drone ship’ has been packaged in a far sturdier, more permanent manner inside steel bunkers, whereas JRTI and OCISLY have generators, power supplies, computers, and communications equipment strewn about their decks in shipping containers.

Drone ship OCISLY and Falcon 9 booster B1058, October 2020. (Richard Angle)
Drone ship ASOG, July 2021. (SpaceX)

On JRTI and OCISLY, the only real protection against the blast of a landing Falcon booster and the threat of damage from high seas smashing into equipment come from two angled steel deflectors. ASOG, on the other hand, looks like a battle-hardened tank with almost no identifiable equipment visible under black steel covers and shielding. ASOG appears to be built to tolerate extreme rocket blasts and high seas, in other words.

Curiously, ASOG’s angular landing deck is also significantly smaller and slightly narrower than the rectangular decks on JRTI and OCISLY. Additionally, the vast majority of ASOG’s extra equipment has been installed on the drone ship’s aft end, seemingly resulting in deck load distribution that is intentionally asymmetric.

That design decision could be connected to Musk’s indication that ASOG is SpaceX’s first truly autonomous drone ship. While JRTI and OCISLY are both capable of autonomously staying in one specific location after being towed out to sea and prepared by a team of technicians, ASOG may be able to travel several hundred miles out to sea, recover and secure a Falcon booster with its Octagrabber robot, and then return to Port Canaveral to offload the rocket without a single person boarding the drone ship.

In theory, if realized, drone ship ASOG’s full autonomy could easily save SpaceX $1M or more per booster recovery. Still, it remains to be seen if SpaceX is actually at a point where at-sea booster recovery can be truly automated as described above. A Shortfall of Gravitas is currently on track to arrive at Port Canaveral on Thursday evening, July 15th.

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SpaceX begins installing Raptor engines on first Super Heavy booster

SpaceX has installed a Raptor engine on a Super Heavy booster prototype for the first time, defying expectations and setting the rocket up for two major tests as early as this week.

On Thursday, July 8th, SpaceX briefly filled Super Heavy Booster 3’s (B3) propellant tanks with benign nitrogen gas. The vehicle seemingly came to life for the first time that morning when it was spotted using its tank vents – a generally incontrovertible sign that the complex mechanical system that is a rocket is functional. Later that day, the public highway and beach adjacent to SpaceX’s launch site were briefly closed for what was expected to be an ambient pressure and/or cryogenic proof test.

Booster 3 never got to the cryogenic proof test – easily confirmed thanks to the frost that forms on most rockets’ exteriors as main tanks are filled with extremely cold liquid nitrogen. No such frost formed, no major venting occurred, and the road was only closed for the first two hours of a six-hour test window.

According to Next Spaceflight’s Michael Baylor, SpaceX did complete a “brief ambient proof” during that relatively short closure, though very little activity was visible during the test. Friday’s 14-hour test window was canceled the next morning, leaving SpaceX the rest of the weekend to prepare the first functional Super Heavy booster for its first truly challenging test – cryo proof.

Instead, late on Saturday, July 10th, SpaceX rolled Raptor 57 (R57) from build site to launch pad and began installing the engine on Booster 3 just a few hours later. Prior to Raptor 57’s installation, most prominent (albeit unofficial) voices in the SpaceX fan community anticipated no more than cryogenic proof testing for Booster 3 – no static fires, in other words.

However, it was fairly apparent that Super Heavy Booster 3 and the modified suborbital launch mount it was installed on were both outfitted for testing more complex than a cryo proof alone. Notably, B3 rolled to the pad with multiple labeled methane pressure vessels (COPVs), extensive plumbing, and autogenous pressurization control panels installed – all of which continued to be actively worked on after the booster was installed at the launch site.

B3 features a myriad of plumbing, virtually none of which would be useful for cryo proof testing with liquid nitrogen. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

While it’s technically not impossible to build a ground testing Starship prototype that’s capable of a wide variety of tests but never actually used to its full extent, doing so would be well out of character for SpaceX and make little sense in general. As such, it’s not a major surprise that SpaceX has now begun to install Raptor engines on Super Heavy Booster 3. What is surprising is that SpaceX is installing Raptor engines on a first-of-its-kind Super Heavy prototype before any fully integrated booster has completed cryogenic testing.

Based on Starship’s ~18-month test history, there is a real possibility Super Heavy B3 will fail during cryogenic proof testing. Even accepting that SpaceX’s testing processes and expertise have matured dramatically after dozens of Starship tests on the ground and in flight, the chance remains. In other words, SpaceX’s decision to begin installing Raptors on Super Heavy before ensuring structural and mechanical integrity implies some combination of unusual confidence in a prototype as unproven as Booster 3 and a distinct lack of concern at the prospect of losing at least two Raptor engines in a hypothetical test failure.

Knowing SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk’s goals for Raptor, the latter implication isn’t much of a surprise but it’s always interesting to have direct visual evidence that Raptor is, in fact, so cheap to build and easy to install that the minor effort and few days of possible delays required to reduce the risk of losing multiple engines just aren’t worth it.

As of July 11th, a second Raptor engine is staged and waiting for installation beside Booster 3. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

As such, it’s now clear that Super Heavy Booster 3 will have at least one or two Raptor engines installed during its very first cryogenic proof test – currently no earlier than 12pm to 8pm CDT (UTC-5) on Monday, July 12th. Assuming SpaceX’s confidence is well-placed and Booster 3 passes its first cryogenic tests without issue, the real question now is how many Raptors will be installed and ignited during Super Heavy’s first static fire test?

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SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft heads home after a month in orbit

After more than a month in orbit, SpaceX’s second upgraded Cargo Dragon spacecraft has undocked from the International Space Station (ISS) on its way back to Earth.

Delayed several days by stormy conditions in the Gulf of Mexico, the effects of Hurricane Elsa thankfully waned enough for NASA and SpaceX to proceed with the second autonomous undocking of a Cargo Dragon on July 8th. Originally scheduled on Tuesday, Dragon’s flawless Thursday departure leaves the spacecraft on track to reenter Earth’s atmosphere and splash down off of Florida’s West Coast in the Gulf of Mexico around 11:29 pm EDT (UTC-4) on Friday, July 9th.

Thanks to SpaceX’s growing expertise with Dragon 2 recovery operations and the CRS-22 mission’s preferred recovery location, science experiments among the more than two tons (~4400 lb) of cargo returning to Earth could be in the hands of their respective scientists mere hours after splashdown.

SpaceX Dragon and payload fairing recovery vessel GO Searcher departed its Port Canaveral berth on July 5th and ultimately rerouted to Tampa Bay after weather delays were confirmed. The ship was able to leave its temporary haven on July 8th and should arrive at the recovery zone around 100-150 km south of Tallahassee, Florida hours before Dragon’s planned reentry.

SpaceX’s first upgraded Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft was safely recovered on January 13th, 2021. (SpaceX)

CRS-22’s reentry, descent, and splashdown is set to occur a few days shy of six months after Cargo Dragon 2’s first successful recovery, which was completed on January 13th. Assuming that CRS-22 ultimately marks SpaceX’s 24th consecutively successful orbital spacecraft recovery, the company’s next Dragon launch – CRS-23 – is scheduled to lift off as early as August 18th, 2021, carrying another wealth of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS).

Cargo Dragon 2’s third launch is expected to occur just one week after Northrop Grumman’s (formerly Orbital ATK) 16th expendable Cygnus resupply mission, which is set to lift off on an Antares rocket no earlier than (NET) August 10th. Cygnus’ NG-16 mission is itself scheduled to launch just 11 days after Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule is set to attempt its second uncrewed mission to the ISS on July 30th. Deemed an Orbital Flight Test, OFT-1 almost ended in catastrophe twice in the handful of hours Starliner was aloft in December 2019. A variety major software bugs and development failures ultimately caused an abort almost the second the spacecraft deployed from ULA’s Atlas V rocket.

In September, a flight-proven SpaceX Crew Dragon is expected to support the world’s first fully private crewed launch to orbit, carrying four passengers as part of billionaire Jared Isaacman’s Inspiration4 mission. As early as late October, SpaceX could launch another four astronauts on Crew-4, the company’s fourth operational space station ferry mission for NASA. Finally, another Cargo Dragon 2 spacecraft is scheduled to fly on CRS-24 in December 2021 – the seventh Dragon launch in 12 months if schedules hold.

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FAA begins use of system to reduce impact of launches on airspace

Falcon 9 Transporter-2 launch

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration has started to use a new tool intended to better integrate commercial launches and reentries into the National Airspace System, reducing the disruptions those events have on aviation.

The FAA announced July 8 that it formally started use of the Space Data Integrator (SDI) with the June 30 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral on the Transporter-2 rideshare mission. It will be used again when the CRS-22 cargo Dragon spacecraft splashes down off the Florida cost late July 9.

SDI, under development by the FAA for several years, automates the transfer of data about launches and reentries to air traffic controllers so they have up-to-date information on the progress of those activities, including any anomalies that might create debris or other aviation hazards. That can allow controllers to more efficiently manage air traffic around those closures.

“The overall impact and the benefit is reducing the amount of time it takes to close or reopen airspace,” Tim Arel, deputy chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, said of the SDI in a call with reporters.

The intent is to allow quicker reopening of airspace once a launch or reentry has safely transited airspace. “We’re able to more dynamically adjust those closures,” he said. “What it means is that those flights moved out of the way to accommodate a safe operation of that space mission will be able to more quickly get back on to their normal flight path, or maybe even get some shortcuts.”

Arel said that other measures it had been taking for airspace closures already reduced the average length from more than four hours to more than two hours. “We know SDI will help us open the airspace even quicker,” he said, but didn’t offer an estimate of how much of an improvement it will provide.

The growing cadence of commercial launches in recent years — there have been 33 licensed launches so far in 2021, compared to 11 in all of 2016 — prompted pushback from the aviation industry given the conventional approach to closing large amounts of airspace for each launch. A breaking point was the first Falcon Heavy launch in February 2018 that closed airspace off the Florida coast for hours on a weekday afternoon, affecting hundreds of flights in a busy corridor.

The aviation and commercial spaceflight industries have been working together more closely together since then, including pushing for tools like SDI that have the potential to reduce the size and duration of airspace closures. However, the long development cycle for SDI prompted congressional criticism at a June 16 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee.

At the hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the full committee, pressed the FAA on the slow progress on SDI, stating he was opposed to delaying airline flights “because some millionaire or billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness.”

At the hearing, Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said operational tests of SDI would begin soon, although there wasn’t a timeline for full integration of SDI. Work on it has accelerated, he said, since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO).

“We have seen tremendous, tremendous progress in just the last two years as Teri Bristol and the ATO has taken this responsibility on with our technical help,” he said in the call with reporters.

Currently, participation in the SDI is voluntary. Besides SpaceX, which started cooperating with the FAA on the SDI in 2016, others include Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace and Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which operates the launch site on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Monteith didn’t give a schedule for bringing other companies into the system, but emphasized the importance of having an automated system like SDI to improve safety.

There are limits, though, to what tools like SDI can do to improve management of launches in the National Airspace System. On June 29, the first Transporter-2 launch attempt was scrubbed shortly after a helicopter entered restricted airspace near the pad, halting the countdown seconds before liftoff. “Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the ‘keep out zone’, which is unreasonably gigantic,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, tweeted shortly after the scrub. “There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.”

Arel said that SDI did not play a factor in the Transporter-2 scrub, since the airspace violation took place before launch. “It was ready to be used for the first attempt and was not needed,” he said.

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SpaceX Starship booster weathers thunderstorm ahead of first ‘cryo proof’

Meshing with road and beach closures requested earlier this week, Next Spaceflight reports that a SpaceX Super Heavy booster is scheduled to attempt a ‘cryo proof’ test for the first time as early as Thursday, July 8th.

Known as Booster 3 (B3), SpaceX rolled the first functional Super Heavy prototype – the largest rocket booster ever completed – from the factory to the launch pad on July 1st. One week later, SpaceX appears to be on track to kick off Super Heavy’s first fully-integrated qualification testing, building off of an apparently successful campaign of pressure testing with booster test tank BN2.1. After completing several tests, BN2.1 was rolled back to a scrapyard near SpaceX’s Boca Chica factory, while part of the custom-built stand used for the campaign was then reinstalled on one of the two ‘suborbital mounts’ used for Starship testing over the last year.

Mere days after Mount A’s modifications were completed, Super Heavy Booster 3 was transported to the pad and installed atop it. For whatever reason, SpaceX technicians and engineers spent the next week scouring the rocket’s exterior and interior with the help of an army of boom lifts, turning the basic structure into a functional pressure vessel with all necessary power, telemetry, and plumbing.

A few days before the storm. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

99% of that closeout work could have seemingly been done under the cover of SpaceX’s high bay, where Booster 3 was assembled out of dozens of steel rings and domes, but the work appears to have been completed regardless. Workers had to contend with routine South Texas downpours and thunderstorms on Tuesday and Wednesday but were otherwise subjected to fairly mundane winds and weather.

Conditions were most dramatic on Tuesday, with torrential rain only interrupted by the occasional lightning bolt – though Booster 3 and the orbital launch pad’s skyscraper-sized launch tower appeared to make it through the day strike-free.

SpaceX’s orbital Starship launch tower (left) and Booster 3 (right) narrowly missed at least one large lightning strike. (NASASpaceflight.com)

Now seemingly fully outfitted with all necessary avionics, wiring, and plumbing, Booster 3’s next major objectives will be ambient and cryogenic proof tests, referring to the process of verifying the structural integrity of the rocket first with benign nitrogen gas and later with supercool liquid nitrogen. SpaceX has performed at least a dozen or two ‘cryo proofs’ over the last 18 months and, at this point, qualification testing is fairly routine.

However, Super Heavy B3 is the largest rocket booster ever built and testing such a massive rocket will necessarily force SpaceX to tread some new ground. In fact, it’s not actually clear how exactly SpaceX will perform Booster 3’s first cryo proof given that the suborbital launch complex hosting it has nowhere near enough cryogenic storage capacity to fully fill Super Heavy with more than 3000 tons (~6.6 million lb) of liquid nitrogen.

As always, testing massive, brand-new rockets is no simple feat, so delays are possible – if not outright likely. Regardless, Super Heavy B3’s first test window is scheduled from noon to 8pm CDT (UTC-5) on Thursday, July 8th, with two backups from 6am to 8pm on July 9th and 12pm to 8pm on July 12th. Stay tuned for updates on the first tests of a full-size Super Heavy booster!

Booster 3. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk talks Starship space telescopes, artificial gravity

In his latest batch of tweets, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that the company is already thinking about the many potential ways its next-generation Starship launch vehicle could be used in space.

Already, ideas publicly touted by the SpaceX CEO range from using Cargo Starships to clean up space debris with its mouth-like payload bay to a stripped-down, expendable variant of the rocket to rapidly send massive spacecraft throughout the solar system. Now, Musk says that SpaceX has also considered tethering Starships together in space to create a form of artificial gravity for passengers on multi-month journeys between planets, as well as the possibility of turning entire Starships into all-in-one orbital observatories a magnitude more powerful than Hubble.

Since SpaceX first began discussing Starship and its predecessors, the potential to launch massive space telescopes has always been close by. (SpaceX)

Apparently invoked during discussions with astrophysicist and Nobel laureate Saul Perlmutter, at least parts of the physics community are already considering the possibilities offered by using Starship as a sort of foundation or spacecraft bus that could carry and operate vast scientific payloads. While Starship has already been officially floated several times as a serious contender for launch services for major future missions, this concept would instead see Starship function as the spacecraft itself.

As of 2021, Starship has yet to reach space or orbit once, but SpaceX isn’t far from that milestone. Eventually, perhaps just a few years from now, Starship will have successfully launched to and operated in orbit dozens or even hundreds of times and become a mature and reliable spacecraft.

At that point, it wouldn’t be out of the question to entrust Starships themselves to serve as long-lasting scientific spacecraft, exploiting a ‘bus’ that could offer abundant power, propulsion, thermal management, navigation, and communications capabilities to any ‘hosted’ payloads. That includes extensively modifying Starships on the ground to create vast space observatories, among numerous other possibilities.

Given Starship’s low production cost, 9-meter (~30 ft) diameter, and nominal ability to deliver at least 100 metric tons (~220,000 lb) of payload to low Earth orbit (LEO), it’s not inconceivable that ships could be outfitted with massive telescopes and scientific instruments. Perhaps more importantly, drastically reduced payload constraints (more than an order of magnitude relative to the Hubble or James Webb telescopes) could allow major innovation in spacecraft/instrument design, radically lowering costs while still improving reliability, redundancy, and performance.

Meanwhile, Musk says that SpaceX has also considered tethering crewed Starships together and spinning them around the center of that tether to create artificial gravity for crewmembers on months-long journeys between Earth, Mars, and other planets. Among fan communities, the tethered gravity concept has been circulating ever since SpaceX first announced Starship in 2016. Loosely researched by NASA and other institutions for decades, no real experimental efforts – save for a single halting test during a 1960s Gemini mission – have ever been pursued.

For Starship, orbital refueling could easily allow SpaceX to cut crewed Earth-Mars transit time to 100 days or less – subjecting astronauts to significantly less time in microgravity than those that crew the International Space Station (ISS). The value proposition of artificial gravity on 3-month cruises is likely substantially less clear-cut given the far-reaching complexity and modifications required to make such a system functional and make Starships compatible.

Regardless, Musk rather cryptically says that SpaceX has considered the concept, though he didn’t elaborate on whether the company ultimately decided to drop the subject or pursue it further.

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SpaceX drone ship completes 5000-mile journey from Florida to California

A bit less than four weeks after departing Central Florida’s Port Canaveral, SpaceX drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (OCISLY) has completed a more than 5000-mile (~8000 km) journey to Port of Long Beach, California.

Around midnight on June 10th, the oldest operational ‘autonomous spaceport drone ship’ (ASDS) was towed out of the closest port to Cape Canaveral, where two SpaceX-leased pads support the vast majority of all Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. Around 12 months before OCISLY’s departure, drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) joined it on the East Coast with its first Atlantic Ocean booster recovery some ten months after the opposite journey – California to Florida.

Thanks in no small part to the presence of two operational drone ships stationed in Port Canaveral, SpaceX completed 32 successful East Coast launches and recovered 31 boosters at sea in those 12 months. However, at least as early as April 2021, plans were already in motion to send one of those two drone ships west.

Likely because it’s the most aging member of SpaceX’s booster recovery fleet, drone ship OCISLY was chosen to head to California and support the start of a few dozen dedicated polar Starlink launches. Thanks to limitations with SpaceX’s even older Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) SLC-4E launch facilities, it’s unlikely that the drone ship will ever need support more than one booster recovery per month, compared to two or even three per month operating out of Port Canaveral.

VAFB Space Launch Complex 4, November 2020. (SpaceX)

While SpaceX’s East Coast launch operation now has just one drone ship to work with, that might not be the case for long. Late last month, a tugboat frequently used by SpaceX to tow drone ships OCISLY and JRTI departed Port Canaveral and arrived at Port Fourchon, Louisiana on June 27th. Finn Falgout will ultimately tow brand new drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas (ASOG) – currently in the late stages of assembly at a Fourchon shipyard – to its new home in Port Canaveral, restoring SpaceX’s East Coast booster recovery fleet to two ships.

ASOG’s trip east could happen at any point this month, albeit only after several days to a week of sea trials expected before the shipyard hands off the vessel to SpaceX. At the moment, no East Coast launches of any kind appear to have been scheduled in the first half of July, hinting at unavoidable downtime either for SpaceX alone or the entire Eastern Range. In other words, ASOG could arrive in time to avoid any direct impact on launch cadence that a single drone ship might have.

Still installed on the deck of transport ship Mighty Servant 1 (MS1), OCISLY will likely be offloaded – weather pending – later this week, after which SpaceX will be able to start the process of getting the drone ship ready for its first West Coast rocket recovery mission. That will likely take at least a week or two, potentially leaving OCISLY ready to support SpaceX’s first dedicated polar Starlink launch as early as late July. Simultaneously, it’s not inconceivable that drone ship ASOG will also be ready for its own rocket recovery debut around the same time, meaning that SpaceX could have three operational drone ships for the first time by next month.

Given SpaceX’s plans to quickly ramp up its VAFB facilities to support one launch per month and the impressive success of its East Coast pads in H1 2021, the company could feasibly complete another 21 or 22 launches between August and December.

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SpaceX sets new goals for Falcon booster reuse goals after ten-flight milestone

Speaking virtually at Barcelona’s 2021 Mobile World Congress (MWC), CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX has already set its sights on even more ambitious reusability goals for Falcon rocket boosters.

Less than two months prior, booster B1051 sent 60 satellites and an upper stage on their way to orbit, simultaneously becoming the first Falcon 9 first stage to ace ten orbital-class launches and landings, crossing a mostly symbolic – but still significant – milestone years in the making. SpaceX competitors – most notably the United Launch Alliance – have often held the ten-flight mark over its head as the latest in a long line of moving goalposts used to discredit, demean, and look down upon reusable rockets and SpaceX’s efforts to realize them.

Not long before it was clear that SpaceX would hit that 10-flight target with at least one Falcon booster, competitors working overtime to rationalize a lack of substantial investment into reusable rockets shifted their goalposts again, expanding rationales to require a fleetwide average of ten flights. Instead of explaining why SpaceX’s reusability plans could never work, as many dozens of aerospace executives have assuredly done over the last 5-10 years, the new attitude du jour is to claim that SpaceX’s ability to achieve its reuse goals was never actually in doubt and that the economics of full booster reuse simply can’t make economic sense!

Now, five and half years after Falcon 9’s first successful booster landing, four years after SpaceX’s first successful booster reuse, and seven weeks after a Falcon 9 first stage’s first ten-flight milestone, Elon Musk says that some of the company’s fleet of boosters are already “slated to fly 20 or possibly 30 times.” Never one to personally rest or allow his companies to rest on their laurels, SpaceX now has a new target to strive for as teams work to ramp and sustain Falcon 9’s launch cadence at record-breaking levels.

Back before Falcon 9’s Block 5 upgrade debuted in May 2018, Musk held a press conference in which he made it abundantly clear that it was SpaceX’s “unequivocal intent” to launch new Falcon boosters up to 10 times without refurbishment. Three years later, although SpaceX ultimately abandoned plans to recover and reuse Falcon 9’s upper stage to prioritize Starship development, Musk’s dream of cutting the cost of launch by a full magnitude has almost been realized.

Technically, if SpaceX had developed a reusable upper stage, Falcon 9 as it stands today could feasibly cost just ~10% of its list price (~$6 million. Factoring in the cost of a new expendable upper stage for each mission, the actual cost of a modern Falcon 9 launch with a flight-proven booster and payload fairing is closer to ~$18M. However, in the same June 2021 interview, Musk confirmed that the cost of Falcon 9 operations – as in refurbishment, recovery, consumables, and any other recurring work – is just 10% of the cost of launch, effectively confirming that Falcon 9’s Block 5 upgrade really did create a rocket booster that requires virtually no refurbishment.

B1051, SpaceX’s first ten-flight Falcon 9 booster. (Richard Angle)

Back in Musk’s 2018 conference call, he also noted that beyond plans for up to ten flights without refurbishment, Falcon boosters could feasibly be made to fly dozens or even 100+ times with occasional in-depth maintenance – not unlike modern aircraft. Three years later, Musk is now talking about launching certain Falcon boosters 20 or 30 times, while something approximating the recurring maintenance he once described has yet to crop up.

It’s possible, in other words, that SpaceX has found that Falcon 9 Block 5 boosters – which do need some small amount of refurbishment and inspection after each launch – can actually be flown 20 or 30 times without major rework. Ultimately, only time will tell, but Falcon 9 B1051’s 11th flight is expected – this time from the West Coast – as early as late July or August 2021, carrying SpaceX’s first or second dedicated batch of polar Starlink satellites. B1051 arrived at Vandenberg Air/Space Force Base (VAFB) in late June about a month after Falcon 9 B1049 – likely set to become the second booster to complete ten launches.

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