Things are starting to get interesting at SpaceX’s Starship factory in Texas

Things are starting to get interesting at SpaceX’s Starship factory in Texas

Hop, baby, hop —

For now, SN5 is still alive.

Eric Berger

SpaceX has rapidly grown its Starship production facilities over the last six months. Here's a view from the east side in late February.

Enlarge / SpaceX has rapidly grown its Starship production facilities over the last six months. Here’s a view from the east side in late February.

Eric Berger

A little less than two months have passed since SpaceX unexpectedly destroyed its latest Starship prototype in South Texas. Shortly after a static-fire test of this vehicle in late May, dubbed Serial Number 4 or SN4, an issue with the ground systems prompted a dramatic explosion, destroying the large vehicle and seriously damaging its test stand.

Since that failure, SpaceX has, if anything, accelerated work in South Texas. The company completed development of a second test stand for Starship and began construction of several new prototypes. In addition to finishing SN5—which was moved to the test stand earlier this month—components of the sixth, seventh, and even eighth Starship vehicles are in various states of construction at SpaceX’s South Texas rocket factory.

There have also been signs that SpaceX may begin development and testing of the Super Heavy rocket relatively soon in South Texas. This is the gargantuan first-stage rocket that will power the Starship vehicle, which is the upper stage, into low-Earth orbit. NASASpaceflight.com’s weekly video update from Boca Chica showcased development of both a high bay in which to stack the Super Heavy rocket, as well as preliminary construction of a launch pad.

Now, the time has come for fire again, with engineers readying SN5 for additional tests. This campaign may culminate with a short flight late this week or early next.

Let’s go hopping

On Monday, the company conducted what appeared to be a fueling test with the vehicle, new test stand, and upgraded ground systems. On Wednesday, as of this writing, SpaceX is in the midst of a tanking test to determine the viability of the prototype’s liquid-oxygen and methane fuel tanks.

If this test goes well, SpaceX is likely to proceed with a static-fire test of SN5 later this week with a single Raptor rocket engine. It is not clear whether the company will conduct just a single static-fire test or more than one. However, if these tests are successful, the company may try launching the full-scale prototype on a 150-meter test flight. On Tuesday, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on Twitter the company would attempt to fly “later this week.”

Some of the failures of the Starship program have not been pretty, to be sure. But no one has been injured, and with an iterative test program, one must accept some reasonable level of risk in order to move fast. And SpaceX has been doing that, having reduced the time to build a single Starship down from months to weeks, bringing it closer to Musk’s ultimate goal of mass-producing the large, interplanetary spaceships that may one day allow humans to settle Mars.

But first, there must be baby steps. So we will watch with interest to see if SN5 takes such a step with a small but significant hop in the coming days.

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