SpaceX’s Starship program is set to take its next leap in the coming year, following a 2021 that included numerous test flights and widescale groundwork at its launch and production facilities.

With the success of Ship 15’s 10 kilometer launch and landing, SpaceX has refocused towards a full-stack launch to orbital velocity as the opening salvo to a year of test flights.

Starship testing in 2021:

Starbase entered 2021 soon after Starship SN8, the first full-scale Starship prototype, had just suffered a failure on landing due to low header tank pressure. SN9, a similar but slightly improved vehicle, was installed onto suborbital Pad B for testing after tipping over in the High Bay after a support holding it up gave way.

SN9 wouldn’t fly until February due to the FAA investigation into the SN8 flight.

As a sign of what is now the usual Starbase production cadence, SN10, 11, and 12 were in various stages of assembly at the time.

However, SN12, 13, and 14 would never see flight, or even complete construction, due to SpaceX deciding to focus all resources on the improved SN15.

SN10, 11, and 12 in various stages of production, as captured by Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF.

SN9 performed a 10 km flight on February 2. Liftoff, engine shutdown, and the bellyflop maneuver went according to plan. However, one of the Raptor engines failed to ignite for landing, causing the vehicle to lose control and crash into the landing pad.

Starship SN10 was not far behind, as it was actually on Pad A while SN9 was launching from Pad B.

SN10 would follow in SN9’s footsteps by performing its own 10 km flight on March 3. SN10 was similar to the previous vehicle, except it featured many more heat shield tiles (246) to test how well they stay attached during flight. 

SN10 would attempt to improve upon SN9’s flight profile by reigniting all three Raptor engines before landing, quickly selecting the best two to use, shutting down the third before switching to just one for the final touchdown.

The test flight of SN10 was another improvement, achieving the first landing milestone. However, about 10 minutes after landing, a methane leak fueled a fire which destroyed the vehicle.

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It was later determined that some helium bubbles from the tanks (used for pressurization) got into the Raptor engine, lowering its thrust and making the vehicle land with a higher velocity than expected. After it impacted the pad, a leak in a methane line formed, leading to the vehicle’s destruction.

Up stepped SN11, less than a month later, on March 30. Launched into a thick blanket of fog, it was hoped this vehicle would achieve a soft landing under the power of two Raptors. However, SN11 exploded above the ground right at engine reignition.

Elon Musk confirmed that a small methane fire damaged the avionics, leading to a hard start and explosion on engine reignition.

Skipping to SN15, SpaceX built on the test flight objectives by completing a safe landing. In addition, with lessons learned from previous iterations, SN15 included upgraded engines, improved internal plumbing, and a more extensive array of test heat shield tiles.

SN15 took flight on May 5, quickly disappearing into the clouds above the launch site before returning for a landing under two engines.

A few weeks later, SN15 was moved back to the Production Site and now stands in a makeshift Rocket Garden next to the unflown Ship 16, which was fully assembled when SN15 flew. Its early retirement confirmed the completion of this phase of testing.

Skipping ahead to Ship 20, SpaceX moved toward the orbital velocity test with its full-stack system, including the Super Heavy Booster.

Ship 20 features several upgrades over SN15, such as Raptor Vacuum engines and a full heat shield. In addition, it has the attachment points needed to connect to a Super Heavy.

The six Raptors on Ship 20 via Jack Beyer for NSF

While Booster 1 was scrapped soon after stacking had been completed, Booster 3 became the next fully assembled Super Heavy before rolling to Pad A at the suborbital launch site.

Booster 3 performed a partial cryogenic proof test, where it was loaded with a small amount of liquid nitrogen before having three Raptor engines installed.

The aft of Booster 3, via Mary (Bocachicagal) for NSF with annotations by Harrison Campbell

Booster 3 performed the first static fire test of a Super Heavy vehicle on July 19 with three engines. Although Elon hinted at nine engines possibly being installed on the vehicle, this would be the only engine test performed with Booster 3.

Amid various Test Tanks and numerous RaptorVan deliveries from the test site in McGregor, one of the year’s highlights was the stacking of Ship 20 with Booster 4 in August, providing the first real glimpse of the world’s tallest and most powerful rocket.

Only minutes later, Ship 20 was removed from atop Booster 4, as fit checks – and the obvious photo opportunity – was the goal of this first stacking.

Both Booster 4 and Ship 20 were sent back to the Production Site for additional work, while Booster 3 was partially scrapped and remains at the Suborbital launch site.

It has since been rejoined by Ship 20, which has performed several static fire tests, culminating in firing all six of its Raptor engines, a first for any Starship and the current record for most Raptor engines fired at once. Ship 20 now resides on Suborbital Pad B.

Booster 4, Ship 20, and Booster 3 at the launch site on Sunday, via Mary (@bocahicagal) for NSF L2.

Booster 4, meanwhile, had aerodynamic covers attached and several engines swapped. It was lifted back onto the now-nearly-complete orbital pad for a third time in December, where it performed cryogenic proofing.

It has recently been removed from the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM).

Forward Plan:

With scaffolding being removed from the Launch Tower, Booster 4’s removal may be the first step towards testing Mechazilla’s Chopsticks, which will later enjoy the role of stacking and catching the vehicles.

On Sunday evening, the first – albeit slow and only a short distance – vertical translation test was observed on NSF’s Starbase Live cameras.

Timelapse of the chopsticks slowly on the move in Starbase.https://t.co/YhZS6pd0Ec pic.twitter.com/WRXW4RMUN0

— Michael Baylor (@nextspaceflight) January 3, 2022

The Orbital Launch Site (OLS) is a hive of activity on most days, with work continuing on the Tank Farm – amid rumors of issues with some of the storage tanks after two large horizontal methane tanks arrived on site – and the “Stage Zero” hardware such as the complex Mount and Quick Disconnect (QD) system.

With the FAA citing its plans to issue the Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy project no earlier than the end of February, SpaceX can claim the review process is the schedule driver. However, Booster 4 has yet to conduct a Static Fire test, likely including an eventual full 29 engine firing.

Further evolutions of the Ship and Booster are yet to come online, with a plan to go to nine engines on Ship and 33 engines on the Booster, all moving to the Raptor 2 variant.

Booster 5 was fully assembled but then placed into storage next to Ship 15 and 16, with an unknown future, while Booster 6 parts were assembled into a test tank.

Booster 7 is currently being stacked in the High Bay, while Ship 21 only requires nosecone mating before it can be classed as stacked. In addition, numerous future Ships and several sections for future Boosters are also in various stages of preparation at the Production Site.

With Elon Musk set to provide a new update presentation in the near-term, numerous unanswered questions may finally gain some clarity. Such an overview is likely to focus on the central area of concern for Musk, which is the production pace of the Raptor 2 engine.

Raptor 2, a new and improved version of Raptor, began testing and production this year. Raptor 2 will produce approximately 230 tons of thrust, compared to 185 tons from Raptor 1. It will also be much cheaper and quicker to produce.

The five test bays for Raptor at McGregor, via Gary Blair for NSF L2

A new factory has already been built at the McGregor test site to help churn out the Raptor 2 units before being test-fired in-situ, prior to a road trip to Starbase.

McGregor now has five test bays, the former Falcon booster tripod stand, the two bays at the original horizontal stand, and two additional bays at the next door new test stand.

Future goals will also require clarity, with SpaceX’s additional Starship locations, ranging from the return of construction to the 39A facility, the future option of LC-49 – along with the potential of utilizing the spare High Bay in the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) – and the projected expansion of SpaceX’s Roberts Road site.

The possible future of Starship at KSC, with 39A and LC-49 involved – via Jay DeShetler for NSF L2

There may even be a long-awaited update on the since-forgotten ocean platforms, Phobos and Deimos.

Although Musk has always stated that Starship’s opening salvo of flights, many in number, will be uncrewed, the Dear Moon flight remains on the books, along with the Human Landing System (HLS) contract with NASA.

SpaceX has applied to the FAA seeking permission to fly up to three orbital flights per year in the development phase and five in the operational phase from Starbase. Their application also seeks permission to eventually land up to five boosters and ten ships back at Boca Chica.

Capacity at the Production Site is being increased with the construction of a new wider High Bay, next to the current facility. This will allow multiple stacking flows to be conducted in tandem.

The new Wide Bay next to the current High Bay, via Mary (@bocachicagal) for NSF L2.

The draft environmental assessment also cited plans for a second orbital launch pad, a second landing pad, a second orbital tank farm, and much more – including a Payload Processing Facility that could dwarf even the new Wide Bay.

Should all go to plan, Starship will move from a test phase into an operational phase, initially launching mass flocks of Starlink satellites. However, transitioning Starship from an operational cargo launch to a crew vehicle will be a significant undertaking.

For live updates, follow NASASpaceFlight’s Twitter account and the NSF Starship Forum Sections.

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