Space transport roundup – Part 1: SpaceX – May.18.2021

Here is a sampling of recent articles, videos, and images dealing with space transport (find previous roundups here). Here Part 1 focuses on  SpaceX. Part 2 reports on news from other space transportation companies and organizations around the world.

** Multiple developments across the board at SpaceX since the last roundup on April 8th. Here is a list of some of the highlights:

  • Five Falcon 9 launches:
    1. April 23:  SpaceX Crew-2 mission sent Dragon Endeavor with four astronauts to the ISS. Both the Dragon and the F9 booster had flown previously.
    2. April 28: Starlink V1.0 L24 – 60 satellites to orbit and booster recovered after its 7th flight.
    3. May 4:  Starlink V1.0 L25 – 60 satellites to orbit. Booster lands safely after 9th flight. This was the 100th successful mission since the last in-flight F9 failure.
    4. May 9: Starlink V1.0 L27 – 60 satellites to orbit.  First stage booster flies for 10th time and lands safely.
    5. May.15: Starlink V1.0 L26 – 52 Starlink satellites to orbit plus rideshare for Capella radarsat and Tyvek smallsat with miniature telescope. Booster lands for 8th time.
  • Dragon reentry:
    • May 2: SpaceX Crew-1 mission astronauts return from ISS aboard Dragon Resilience for a rare night time splashdown at a spot near Florida’s Gulf coast.
  • Starship milestones:
    • April 16: NASA selects SpaceX Starship proposal as single winner for Artemis Human Landing System (HLS) funding. The $2.9B program would support development of the Lunar version of the Starship and fund two missions (uncrewed and crewed) to the Moon’s surface.
    • May 5: First successful landing of a Starship prototype after a flight to a high altitude.
    • May 14: Plan released showing primary features of the first “orbital” Starship mission, which could happen as early as this summer.
  • Other developments:

** May 14: Outline of Starship “orbital” mission released in FCC filing. Perhaps within a few months, the first launch of a Starship atop a Super Heavy Booster will lift off from Boca Chica Beach, ala Starbase, Texas. The primary goals of the mission are provided in a filing with the FCC, Starship Orbital – First Flight FCC Exhibit – FCC (pdf).

Flight Profile
The Starship Orbital test flight will originate from Starbase, TX. The Booster stage will separate approximately 170 seconds into flight. The Booster will then perform a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 20 miles from the shore. The Orbital Starship will continue on flying between the Florida Straits. It will achieve orbit until performing a powered, targeted landing approximately 100km (~62 miles) off the northwest coast of Kauai in a soft ocean landing.

The launch will thread the Starship between Cuba and other Caribbean islands while the Super Heavy will return for a water landing off the coast of Texas. Credits: SpaceX

So the Starship (SN20?) will reach orbital velocity but will fire its engines for reentry before completing a complete orbit.

SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult  to accurately predict or replicate computationally. This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design or CONOPs after the first flight and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.

The Starship will fire make its de-orbit burn before completing a full circle of the Earth. The reentry trajectory will put the ship into the ocean near Hawaii. Credits: SpaceX

Unfortunately, the 28 Raptors on the booster and the 6 on the Starship (including 3 with large vacuum optimized nozzles) will likely be lost on this mission.  Even if production is nearing Elon’s goal of $1M per engine, it will be a significant loss down the ocean drain. For perspective, though, consider that each of the four Shuttle engines (de-rated from reusable to expendable) on a throwaway Space Launch System, will cost $146M, several times more than the combined cost of all those Raptors.

See also:

** May.5: SN15 becomes first SpaceX Starship prototype to fly to high altitude and survive landing. A small fire flared at the base for a few minutes after touchdown but did not lead to the destruction of the vehicle as happened with SN10.  Much of the flight was hidden from view by thick clouds but the takeoff and landing were visible to the thousands watching in person and via the various webcasts. SpaceX provided live video views from a camera in the rocket engine compartment and from one of a flap near the front.  While there were long breaks in the video transmission, telemetry indicated the flight was going well. Elon Musk tweeted after the fire was out, “Starship landing nominal!

Here is a highlights video released by SpaceX on May 13th:

On Wednesday, May 5, Starship serial number 15 (SN15) successfully completed SpaceX’s fifth high-altitude flight test of a Starship prototype from Starbase in Texas. SN15 ascended, transitioned propellant, and reoriented itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent. The Raptor engines reignited to perform the landing flip maneuver before touching down for a nominal landing on the pad. These Starship test flights improve our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry crew and cargo on long-duration interplanetary flights, help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.

High-res views from Cosmic Perspective:

Starship development is moving forward roughly in blocks of 5. The early prototypes SN1-SN4 had only the propellant tank sections and were used primarily for structural pressure tests. This involved implementing the various ground support systems and interfaces to the vehicle and gaining experience with preparing a vehicle for flight. SN5 and SN6 also had no nosecones but carried out short hop flights. The SN7 tag  was assigned to modules for testing the propellant tanks. The SN8 vehicle included the nosecone section and was the first vehicle to go to high altitude (~12km).  It and vehicles SN9-SN11 all flew to the 12 km range but either failed during landing attempts or, in SN10’s case, blew up a few minutes after landing. Some components and assembly steps  were observed for SN12 and SN13 but these were eventually junked in favor of jumping to the SN15 block.

SN15 reportedly involved many improvements over the previous vehicles, making it a significant step up from the SN8-13 design. Most of these improvements are internal and have not been detailed publicly. (Here is a guess at changes in the piping to the engines.)  However, to the outside observer the three Raptor engines installed on SN15 display a much neater and uniform arrangement of piping and cabling, indicating that the engines are transitioning from developmental prototypes to operational units.

Shortly after the landing, Elon said that the SN15 might fly again soon. It was later moved to the second suborbital launch platform. The SN16 prototype appears to be complete but no word on when and if it will be moved from the High Bay hangar to the launch site.

Some articles about the SN15:

**** More Starship related items below.

Falcon 9/Dragon

** May.15: Falcon 9 launches from Kennedy Space Center with 52 Starlinks plus two rideshare satellites. The booster landed successfully on platform at sea for the 8th time. The  rideshare satellites included a Tyvak smallsat with a miniature space telescope and Capella Space small synthetic aperture radar imaging satellite.

** May.9.2021: Falcon 9 launches 60 Starlink satellites and booster successfully flies for 10th time on Starlink V1.0 L27. The original goal of 10 booster flights and landings before a major refurbishment was reached with this mission. It appears, in fact, that refurbishment between flights is sufficient to keep a booster flying so this one will probably do another flight within the usual 1 to 2 month gap between booster flights.

** May.4: SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites on Starlink V1.0 L25 mission. Booster lands after its 9th flight.

** May.2: SpaceX Dragon “Resilience” splashes down in darkness with Crew-1 astronauts from the ISS. The SpaceX Crew-1 mission members – NASA astronauts Michael Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and JAXA astronaut Soichi Noguch – completed their 6 month stay aboard the station and, after a few days delay due to bad weather in the recovery area in the Gulf of Mexico near the Florida panhandle, departed from the station on the evening of May 1st. This was only the third nighttime water landing in spaceflight history.

NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, left, Victor Glover, Mike Hopkins, and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Soichi Noguchi, right are seen inside the SpaceX Crew Dragon Resilience spacecraft onboard the SpaceX GO Navigator recovery ship shortly after having landed in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Panama City, Florida, Sunday, May 2, 2021. NASA’s SpaceX Crew-1 mission was the first crew rotation flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket with astronauts to the International Space Station as part of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

*** Apr. 28: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches 60 more Starlink satellites. The first stage booster landed safely on its seventh flight.

*** Apr.23: SpaceX Crew Dragon launched with 4 new crew members for the ISS. The Falcon 9, with a previously flown first stage, lifted off early in the morning of April 23rd with a previously flown Dragon. The Crew-2 flight is the second operational Crew Dragon flight and the third Dragon flight with astronauts on board counting the Demo 2 mission that launched on May 30, 2020. The Crew-2 astronauts rode the same Crew Dragon Endeavour that flew on the Demo-2 mission. The F9 booster propelled the Crew-1 mission last November. The booster landed safely again on a floating platform in the Atlantic.

The Dragon rendezvoused and docked to the station early on April 24th:

An overview of the mission:

NASA’s SpaceX Crew-2 mission to the International Space Station is ready to launch. Join NASA’s Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, Aki Hoshide of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and Thomas Pesquet of ESA (European Space Agency) as they talk about the prospect of flying on a new spaceship, the six-month space mission they’ve been preparing for, and the future in space they’re helping to build.

*** SpaceX ends effort to catch Falcon 9 fairings in nets atop ships at sea. As explained by Scott Manley in this video, the percentage of successful catches was quite low while recovering the fairings from the water and refurbishing them for flight has become quite doable.

SpaceX has dismantled the massive nets on Ms Tree and Ms Chief which were used for catching fairings falling from space, but, they still have a large fleet of ships used for ocean recovery operations so this seems like a perfect opportunity to talk about this: More info on SpaceX’s Ships

See also SpaceX has Given up Trying to Catch Rocket Fairings. Fishing Them out of the Ocean is Fine – Universe Today.

** A new Falcon 9 first stage arrives at Cape Canaveral. With the number of flights per booster steadily increasing, the demand for first stages has dropped significantly. The arrival of a new one has become an unusual event. SpaceX delivers new Falcon 9 booster for the first time in 8 months – Teslarati

** Eric Berger, Early Days of SpaceX – Here is a video of a presentation given at the symposium titled, NASA and the Rise of Commercial Space: A Symposium to Examine the Meaning(s) and Context(s) of Commercial Space. Berger is the author of Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX [Amazon commission link]. The

From activities in low-Earth orbit to the Artemis program, the commercial space industry is beginning to take on an increased role as innovator in both space access, commerce, and exploration. This growth of commercial space over the past decades offers the potential for a new paradigm for space exploration—one in which industry transitioned from supplier to partner. Still, many questions remain spanning from the most seemingly consequential “How will humanity explore the Moon and Mars?” to the more basic, “What is Commercial Space?” This virtually hosted symposium explores this transformation and examines the historical context for answering these questions.

** The Space Show – Tuesday, Apr.27.2021Eric Berger of Ars Technica discussed

his new book about the beginning phase of SpaceX, Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX [Amazon commission link]. Eric responded to multiple questions about Artemis, the recent NASA Human Lander Award and what might come next plus general Elon Musk and SpaceX questions.

** T+187: Eric Berger on Artemis, Starship, Amazon’s Atlas V Rides, and the State of Blue Origin – Main Engine Cut Off

Eric Berger of Ars Technica returns to the show to talk about NASA selecting SpaceX’s Starship for its Artemis landings, Bill Nelson’s nomination hearing, Amazon buying 9 Atlas V launches for Kuiper, and the state of Blue Origin.


Check out the
The Lurio Report
for news and analysis of key developments in NewSpace

The latest issue:
Starships and Luna, Commercial LEO, Sen. Nelson
Vol. 16, No. 3, April 3, 2021

Space Frontier Foundation Award for NewSpace Journalism


Starship/Super Heavy Booster

** Latest diagram showing status of Starship and Super Heavy Booster prototypes in construction and operation:

[ Update: The status and fates of all the prototypes so far:


*** SpaceX wins NASA contract for human missions to the Moon. NASA surprised the space world with the announcement that SpaceX was the sole winner of the initial Human Lander System contract. The company will get $2.9B for two StarShip missions to the Moon. The first will demonstrate a landing of an uncrewed Starship on the lunar surface and then lift off and return to orbit. The second mission will send a US crew to the surface for the first time since the Apollo 17 lunar excursion module left in 1972. Elon Musk believes these missions can be accomplished by 2024, the original date of the Artemis program, which many had come to believe was impossible with current funding for the program.

The contract was subsequently suspended until resolution of the award protests by HLS program competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics. The successful flight and landing of Starship prototype SN15 (see top item) boosts the claims by NASA and SpaceX that the development of the Starship systems are well ahead of the other bidders and on track for reaching the Moon by the mid-2020s if not by 2024.

Here is the Human Landing System Announcement Media Teleconference where the announcement of the selection was made. (The event starts at the 9:30 point into the video):

The Magic of SpaceX w/ Eric Berger  – David Lee on Investing (Ep. 310)  – An informative interview with Eric Berger about  Elon Musk and SpaceX on the day the company won the HLS contract:

*** Independent analyses of Starship/Super Heavy performance:

Casey Handmer discussed his studies of the Starship/Super Heavy capabilities in a recent interview on The Space Show: Broadcast 3686 Dr. Casey Handmer | The Space Show

Starship enables lunar activities and settlement on a sci-fi scale. Handmer shows that Starships could deliver hundreds of tons of cargo to the Moon per year at a cost well within NASA’s current budget: Lunar Starship and unnecessary operational complexity – Casey Handmer’s blog

It’s worth stating at the outset that Starship is in a league of its own in the current field of lunar landers. Within the HLS program, the NASA spec called for a capacity of at least 9 T, ideally 12 T, to the Lunar surface. Starship in its most basic configuration can do more than 200 T. One of these is not like the others.

The real strength of Starship is not in its transformationally large cargo capacity, but in its low cost of operations. Why fly 200 T once when we could fly it a few dozen times for less than the cost of the next cheapest vehicle?

A single Starship flight to the Moon can transport 25 [Tons] of mission-related cargo there and back, which is more than enough to support a crew of 10 for weeks, and give them a Moon rover each. Add to this the beginnings of an enormous lunar space station built inside an expendable Starship-based lander and not only is the Artemis program affordable, it’s also achieving something like an exciting science-fiction based vision for what a Moon base should look and feel like.

No NRHO [Near-rectilinear halo orbit] phasing requirements, no launch windows, no decades-long roll out of incredibly expensive deep space infrastructure. Just a vehicle built around the given task and committed to achieving it without compromises. A mission architecture capable of deploying a large lunar base for a cost comparable to the NSF’s new(ish) South Pole Station. With a budget of $1b/year, NASA could fly this mission (or variations on the theme) every 90 days – a big step change improvement over space access with the ISS.

** More about the impact Starships will have on space exploration and development:

** A vivid perspective illustrating the relative distance between the production area and the launch/landing facilities at Boca Chica Beach:

** NASA funding for SpaceX in-space cryogenic propellant transfer demo: Last year NASA announced plans to award $370M in funding for demonstrations of various “Tipping Point” technologies. The term tipping point here implies that a technology has reached an advanced level of development but needs one final demo boost to prove that it is ready for operational use.

SpaceX was one of several companies awarded funding for projects involving propellant transfer and storage in space. The $50M for SpaceX has now arrived, which will enable the company to carry out a demonstration in orbit of cryogenic propellant transfer by the end of 2022:

Transferring liquid methane and oxygen in orbit is a key factor in the Starship architecture. A Starship can reach low earth orbit from Earth but to go on to the Moon, Mars, and other deep space destinations, it will need to fill up on propellants delivered from earth.

** Some videos from Boca Chica Beach/Starbase, Texas:

*** May 7: SpaceX Starship SN15 & Starbase Tx FlyoverRGV Aerial Photography

*** May.15: New Starbase Sign Unveiled | SpaceX Boca ChicaNASASpaceflight – YouTube

SpaceX unveils a new Starbase sign outside of the Propellant Production Site. SpaceX aims to incorporate the area as Starbase, TX as they push toward the first orbital launch. Video & Photos from Mary (@BocaChicaGal) and the NSF Robotic Camera Team. Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist)

*** May.16: Two Massive Cranes Assembled | SpaceX Boca ChicaNASASpaceflight – YouTube

As Starship SN15 is inspected for a potential second flight, SpaceX crews assemble two new massive cranes to assist in Orbital Launch Site construction. Video & Photos from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist)

*** May.17New Crane for Orbital Site Construction Comes Together | SpaceX Boca ChicaNASASpaceflight – YouTube

The new Liebherr LR 11000 crane has the rest of its large components assembled, minus its full boom. Once complete it will assist Frankencrane in Orbital Launch Site construction. Video & Photos from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Brady Kenniston (@TheFavoritist)

** More SpaceX related reports:

*** May.18: SpaceX Starship SN20 Orbital Flight Analyzed – Flight Plan released!What about it!?

*** May.15: SpaceX Starship development shifts focus to orbital flight with Super Heavy Marcus House

*** Apr.17: NASA Will Spend $2,941,394,557 On SpaceX’s Massive Lunar Starship Lander!!!Scott Manley

Many people were surprised yesterday when news leaked that NASA was awarding all the funding from the Artemis Human Landing System program to SpaceX with its massive Lunar Starship project. SpaceX’s price tag is about $2.9 billion with a commitment to fund half of it themselves. While most space watchers could see why SpaceX had made it to the final round most of us didn’t expect it to be the only choice because it was so unlike what NASA was asking for. However the HLS program only got 1/3 of the money it needed from Congress and with time marching on NASA had to make a decision and the only option with a price tag that fit was SpaceX.

** More SpaceX news & resources:

Now proceed to Space transport roundup – Part 2: Everybody Else – May.18.2021

=== Amazon Ads ===

Test Gods:
Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut

=== Amazon Ad ===

Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days
That Launched SpaceX