SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has offered a new glimpse inside the company’s rapidly-expanding South Texas Starship factory, revealing the beginnings of the next-generation rocket’s first true assembly line — and a wealth of spacecraft hardware.
Situated two or so miles from the Gulf of Mexico (and Mexico itself) in Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX has been seriously planning a presence in South Texas for more than five years. Originally meant to host the United States’ first private orbital launch complex for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, only a small amount of work – known as soil surcharging – was done in the four years that followed SpaceX’s 2014 announcement. In late 2018, however, work began in earnest to build basic launch and manufacturing facilities.
Less than six months later, the first true Starship prototype – known as Starhopper and built from scratch out in the South Texas elements – ignited its Raptor engine for a brief static fire test, bringing the first to facilities and rocket to life less than half a year after they were little more than a pile of dirt and steel sheets. Now, barely nine months after Starhopper’s first static fire test, SpaceX is working around the clock to erect a full-scale rocket factory and build what could become the first orbital-class Starships. On February 9th, Elon Musk offered the best glimpse yet of the incredible progress SpaceX has made in a matter of weeks.
Barely a month ago, the rocket hardware pictured above did not exist, while the giant Tesla-inspired tent containing those Starship parts was a half-finished skeleton. Now, Elon Musk says that SpaceX has effectively completed three of the hardest parts of its first upgraded Starship prototype (SN01), while an additional two (of three) of those parts – known as propellant tank domes – are already in work for a second Starship (SN02).
Outside of the ‘sprung structure’ (i.e. tent) shown in Musk’s February 9th photo, SpaceX contractors appear to be just days away from completing the shell of a second identical tent, ultimately doubling the space available for enclosed manufacturing operations. At the same time as both Starship hardware and production facilities are rapidly coming together, SpaceX is also erecting what is presumed to be a Vehicle Assembly Building – a potentially massive structure that will protect vertical Starships and Super Heavy boosters from the elements while workers assemble them into finished rockets.
It looks likely that by the time SpaceX needs to vertically integrate Starship SN01, a brand new ‘Vehicle Assembly Building’ will be ready – or nearly so. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal) An annotated view of SpaceX’s first true Starship factory. (Elon Musk)
Inside the finished tent, SpaceX appears to have set up the first true Starship assembly line (of sorts), expanding from working on a single kind of prototype at a time to concurrent (serial) production of major components. Visible are three Starship bulkheads (tank domes) – two completed instances of which have already been transported outside and integrated with finished ring segments, forming two halves of Starship SN01’s complete liquid methane (LCH4) tank.
Near the back of the tent, work is also ongoing on several Starship SN01 tank rings. In the center, technicians are outfitting Starship SN01’s engine and ‘skirt’ section, where the bottommost tank dome will attach to three (up to six) Raptor engines. To the left, a stack of two rings appears to be stored off to the side, while – only slightly visible in Musk’s photo – another pair of rings is being welded together with the help of a rotating table.
Far from its full capacity and working out of a much smaller tent, SpaceX’s dedicated ringforming station – tasked with turning coils of steel into finished Starship rings – has finished no less than 34 steel rings since the January 1st. SpaceX is still clearly learning and at least third of those rings wound up being scrapped due to defects, but the material cost of all of those rings (~55 tons of steel) is probably less than $150,000. Additionally, those 34 completed segments would reach more than 60 meters (200 ft) tall if stacked, enough to build almost two Starship tank and engine sections – domes excluded.
In simple terms, SpaceX has pivoted away from the more boutique style of prototype fabrication used for Starhopper and Starship Mk1 and is now building Starship SNxx hardware extremely quickly. At the same time, the enclosed manufacturing space available to SpaceX is probably going to double before this week is out. Ultimately, SpaceX’s March 2020 Starship SN01 flight debut target is quickly becoming less and less crazy by the day.
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