Last month, SpaceX and NASA were free to resume operations after Blue Origin’s lawsuit against NASA over the Human Landing System (HLS) was dismissed.
NASA astronauts and Artemis Program directors recently took advantage of this by seeing SpaceX’s Starship factory and launch pads in South Texas, which the firm has dubbed Starbase.
NASA officials were finally able to get up close and personal with SpaceX’s efforts as the space agency was briefly compelled to suspend all work on HLS, except for reports from SpaceX and even members of the public during the previous 6-9 months.
.@NASA recently visited @SpaceX for a firsthand look at a prototype of the human lander that will ferry @NASAArtemis astronauts to the lunar surface during #Artemis III. This demonstration will lay the foundation for a long-term human presence at the Moon later this decade. pic.twitter.com/Ps8xZjq02j
— NASA Artemis (@NASAArtemis) December 21, 2021
It has been less than a year since SpaceX’s first Starship test flight, but the company has made significant progress in that time, including the development of Super Heavy and the construction of Starbase’s orbital launch site.
By 2021, Starbase’s one-and-a-half-mile-long orbital launch pad was just an empty lot with only one-third of the launch platform, which had been built well in advance. That orbital launch site, which includes a skyscraper-sized launch tower, three gigantic arms, possibly the most complicated launch mount in spaceflight history, and the biggest cryogenic tank farm ever constructed for a rocket, is nearing completion less than a year later.
Starbase, Tx Launch Site
11 month difference pic.twitter.com/pfrJ0Co5ZT
— RGV Aerial Photography (@RGVaerialphotos) December 7, 2021
Work on the 146m (480ft) launch tower’s chopsticks and rapid detach swing arm is expected to take several weeks to complete and certify. Liquid methane fuel has yet to be added to the pad’s huge tank farm (LCH4).
Cryogenic proof testing on Starship’s first possibly flyable booster, Super Heavy Booster 4 (B4), will begin after the tank farm is complete and loaded with hundreds of tanker trucks of liquid oxygen and nitrogen. On December 17th, the procedure started, and on December 21st, a second cryogenic test was performed.
Cryogenic liquids were loaded into SpaceX’s Super Heavy B4 in around two hours on the 22nd, making it the most ambitious test of the company’s rocket testing to date. Both sides of the tank farm were clearly active, indicating that the majority of that liquid was indeed liquid oxygen (LOx), the oxidizer Starship will be loaded with before launch.
Also known as wet dress rehearsals and static fire tests, these tests will ultimately simulate full thrust right before liftoff and commence as soon as SpaceX is certain that the tank farm is safe to hold liquid methane.
SpaceX will be able to test a fully-integrated two-stage Starship launch vehicle for the first time once the tower’s three arms are at least partly functioning, clearing the path for the first attempt at orbital-velocity launch as soon as the FAA approves a license.
Every single Starship and Super Heavy booster that SpaceX builds and tests matures the foundation of that crewed variant’s design and the fleet of boosters and ships that will be required to fuel it in orbit. Even though SpaceX technically has not started building a prototype of the actual Starship Moon lander that will return humans to the lunar surface.
The first completed orbital-class prototype, Starship S20, seems to have passed all testing and is ready for the program’s first attempt at orbital-velocity launch. Super Heavy Booster 4 may be just around the corner if the current testing pace continues at this pace.