Space transport roundup: Part 3 – SpaceX – Oct.27.2021

This roundup provides a sampling of recent articles, videos, and images dealing with space transport (find previous roundups here). The roundup is split into three postings:

  • Part 1: Orbital launches
  • Part 2: Light orbital lift development, suborbital, space transport articles, news, videos, etc.
  • Part 3: SpaceX Falcon 9, Dragon, and Starship

Falcon  9 and Dragon

The SpaceX Falcon 9 launch rate slowed considerably this past summer. There were 20 missions flown from January through June but none in July and just three from August till the middle of October. There were several factors leading to the slowdown, the primary one being the completion by June of the initial phase of the Starlink constellation buildup. (See links at bottom here for latest info on the Starlink project). Thirteen of those 20 missions each sent 50+ Starlink satellites into low earth orbit. Those Starlinks went into +/- 55 degree inclination orbits where they can provide Internet services to people living in the mid-latitudes.

The next phase of the Starlink project requires launching satellites to polar orbits to enable full global coverage. It appears most of these polar missions will be launched from Vandenberg AFB in California.  The first polar orbital launch lifted off on September 14th (see below).  These second-phase satellites carry laser communications systems that enable in-space intra-constellation links, greatly reducing the latency of packets transmitted between far distant points on the globe. Completing development of the laser system and ramping up its production took extra time, which also contributed to the delay in launches.

The F9 launch rate is now picking up again with ten missions scheduled for the remaining months of 2021. A NASA crew of 4 is set to head for the ISS this Sunday, Oct.31.2021.

Here are items about the three F9 missions for August and September:

** Sept.16: Inspiration4 mission success. The first all-civilian spaceflight mission successfully sent four non-professional astronauts into orbit for four days and returned them safely to Earth. It was very successful at public outreach as well. The mission gained widespread media attention, most of which seemed quite positive.  A five episode special series on Netflix presented captivating profiles of the space travelers and followed their activities during training, the launch, in-orbit and through the return to a splashdown and recovery at sea. Funded by Jared Isaacman, the project surpassed his goal of raising $200M for St. Judes Children’s hospital. (Helped by a $50M contribution of Elon Musk and by Issacman’s own $100M.)

Reports, articles, and commentary:

** Inspiration4 inspires plans for multiple civilian flights per year on SpaceX vehicles.

*** Sept.14: Falcon 9 launches first Starlink mission from Vandenberg. The first stage booster successfully landed after its 10th flight. The 51 satellites deployed by the upper stage will go into orbits at 70 degree inclination with respect to the equator. Over 1700 satellites of the initial Starlink shell were launched from Cape Canaveral into 53 degree inclinations that allow Internet service to a band of the earth between +/- 55 degrees latitude. This West Coast launch began the filling of a second shell that will provide coverage to the polar regions. These are the first Starlink satellites to carry laser systems for in-space communications. This will allow the sats to connect directly with each other. Ground stations are few and far between in the polar regions so a laser network will provide for in-space data transfers to whichever satellite is currently above a ground station. Eventually lower latitude shells will also be replaced with sats equipped with laser-comm systems since in-space comm is faster than transversing optical fibers and multiple routers to reach a particular destination.

** Aug.29: SpaceX Falcon 9 launches Cargo Dragon to the ISS with nearly 2180 kg of supplies, equipment, and research materials. The rocket lifted off at 3:14 am EDT from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The booster B1061, on its fifth flight, landed successfully on the new ocean platform named, Shortfall of Gravitas. The spacecraft docked to the station on the morning of Aug.30th.

** Third SpaceX Commercial Crew Mission set for end of October. Crew 3 includes NASA astronauts Thomas Marshburn, Kayla Barron and Raja Chari and German ESA astronaut Matthias Maurer.  This  mission will actually be the fifth Crew Dragon flight with people on board when one includes the CCP demonstration mission plus the Inspiration 4 civilian flight discussed above.

** New ocean-going ships added for Crew Dragon recovery ops and for first stage landings:


Though there were no Starship test flights since the previous roundup at the end of July,  a tremendous amount of activity has taken place at the Boca Chica production and launch facility  in preparation for future Starship missions. These activities can be divided among the following sites and hardware systems:

  • Orbital Launch Site (OLS):
    • The OLS includes a launch integration tower (note that a second one is planned as well), a launch mount, and a vast ground infrastructure that includes huge upright cryogenic fluid tanks, a maze of piping, multiple fluid handling and cooling systems, electrical power distribution systems, etc. Substantial progress has been made in all of these areas.
    • Orbital Launch Integration Tower (OLIT):
      • Fitting out of the OLIT has continued night and day since the final segment was set in place by a huge crane in July. The OLIT will not only provide propellants and power to the Starship and Super Heavy booster but it will also stack the former onto the latter for launch and then catch each of the two during landings.
      • Quick Disconnect arm (QD) was installed at a level near the joint between the Starship and the Booster. It will be used to transfer propellants to and from the vehicle as well as stabilize the combo during high winds.
      • Mechazilla, as tagged by Elon Musk, was installed this past week onto the OLIT. This mechanism includes long arms  and moves up and down on the OLIT. It will lift, raise and stack a booster onto the Launch Mount and then stack a Starship on top of the booster.  It also will work with the QD to hold the combo in place. Furthermore, the “Chopsticks” will catch a booster during its landing and then catch a Starship to stack upon the booster.
    • Launch Mount:
      • The Starship/Booster combo will sit atop the Launch Mount until the 29 Raptor engines (33 on a later design) fire and send it into space. The Launch Mount consists of a circular structure atop six tall heavy pillars. The mounting structure provides a number of important duties including the feeding of propellants up till the moment of liftoff when the feed-lines must quickly disconnect, hold-downs to keep the rocket securely upright until liftoff when they must quickly and uniformly let go of the booster, electric power connections, etc. Work on the circular mount structure has been going on continuously from the time it was at the production site to the current position at the launch site, where it is enveloped in metal tubular scaffolding.
    • Orbital Tank Farm:
      • The tank farm consists of eight vertical tanks for storing liquid oxygen, liquid methane, and water. The tanks were built by SpaceX in a manner very similar to the booster and Starship from cylinders of stainless steel. Each of the eight tanks has now been encapsulated by an insulating shell, also built by SpaceX.
      • There are also several other tanks on the OLS for additional fluid handling and storage.
“Starbase under construction” – Elon Musk, Oct.22.2021
  • Starship 20:
    • Thermal protection tiles:
      • Black ceramic tiles for thermal protection during reentry from orbit were installed on the “belly” side of Starship 20 while it was in the High Bay but many were marked with tape to indicate that they needed adjustment, replacement, and/or testing. After the vehicle was moved to a mount at the launch site, these problem tiles were dealt with by workers lifted via mobile elevated work platforms. This was the first time a complete set of tiles were attached to a Starship. A handful of tiles have fallen off during tank pressure and engine tests but Elon has indicated such problems were expected.
    • Raptor installation:
      • Raptor engines, both the sea-level and vacuum optimized types, have been installed, removed, and re-installed a few times. (The Starship uses three Raptors optimized for sea-level pressure and three for vacuum.)
    • Tests:
      • Pressure testing of the propellant tanks.
      • Structural test with hydraulic actuators pressing on the bottom of the vehicle during pressurization of the tanks.
      • Firing tests of the sea level and vacuum Raptors (see video below).
      • On October 21st, a vacuum-optimized Raptor was fired for the first time outside of the company’s McGregor, Texas engine test site.
  • Super Heavy Booster 4:
    • Preparation of Booster 4 has been quite intense. After the booster and Starship were briefly mounted atop one another on the Launch Mount, the booster was moved back to the Build Site for additional work and then returned to the OLS where it currently sits atop a temporary mount.
    • Engines on Booster 3 were test fired back in July but there has not yet been a test firing of engines installed on Booster 4. (Booster 3 was partially disassembled and the lower portion currently remains standing at the launch site.)
  • Build site:
    • Starship 21:
      • Stacking of the segments is nearly complete in the Mid-Bay hangar.
    • Starship 22:
      • Several of the segments have been assembled and await stacking.
    • Boosters:
      • Stacking of Booster 5 is nearly complete in the High Bay hangar. Segments for Booster 6 have been observed.
    • New Wide Bay:
      • Construction of a third hangar is proceeding apace with the first metal frame pillars for the walls are being put in place following the completion of the foundation.
      • This hangar will be as tall as the high bay but roughly twice as wide.
    • High Bay:
      • The penthouse dining/bar facility on top appears nearly complete with the installation of large clear glass walls to allow visitors to see the facilities and watch launches and landings.
      • Staircase segments have been built and will apparently be stacked along the side of the building and will probably enclose the elevator, which currently rises in the open air.

To help meet all of these goals for Boca Chica, the company initiated a surge of workers by bringing them in from other facilities:

** SpaceX Starbase, Tx Flyover (October 18, 2021)RGV Aerial Photography.  A recent view from above the Boca Chica site; includes helpful labels on the many features of interest.

***** Aug.1: Starbase – July 2018 vs Aug.2021RGV Aerial Photography – A look at how the Boca Chica site has changed in the past three years.

** Status of development of Starships and boosters is displayed in this infographic posted by Brendan Lewis:

** SpaceX video shows highlights of activities at the Boca Chica spaceport:

** A timeline for Starship 20 and Booster 4:

** Date of first Starship orbital test flight remains uncertain. The intense effort at Boca Chica has paid off in terms of preparation for a test launch. Elon Musk on Twitter:

If all goes well, Starship will be ready for its first orbital launch attempt next month, pending regulatory approval

However, as he indicates, the FAA may not license a launch for at least a few months (see FAA environmental review discussion below). A NASA project to use special cameras to observe a Starship’s thermal protection surface during reentry is expecting a launch in March. Whether this will be the first Starship orbital launch is not said.

** Pace of Starship development now depends on the FAA. The Commercial Space Transportation wing of the FAA is currently reviewing whether the environmental impact study (EIS) that was approved several years ago for the SpaceX launch facility at Boca Chica Beach, Texas remains valid. The earlier EIS was based on Falcon 9 launches from the site while SpaceX subsequently switched the spaceport completely to Starship/Super Heavy Booster operations.

The FAA could decide that no revisions are needed, or that some revisions are needed, or that a new enviro study must be completed from scratch. A whole new study could means years of delay. However, from a draft assessment released in September (see links below), such an option seems unlikely. If the FAA instead requires that some number of elements of the old study must be redone or that some elements must be added, that might still mean months of delay before any test flights can be carried out.

Recently, the FAA held hearings in which members of the public could express their views on the Boca Chica project. The pros greatly out-weighed the cons but we won’t know for weeks or months whether issues brought up at the hearing motivated additional requirements on SpaceX.

Links to items about the FAA regulatory situation:

Note that according to the FAA draft reviews, the number of Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica would be limited to five per year. So SpaceX’s goal of eventually making daily Starship flights to orbit will await the completion of the two offshore launch/landing platforms, Phobos and Deimos.

** Meanwhile, firing tests of the Raptors on the Starship, and presumably soon the Booster, have started:

*** Full set of 29 Raptors have been installed on Super Heavy Booster #4:

Since August some engines have been removed and others installed.

*** Supplying propellants to ravenous Super Heavy Booster engines requires a monumental maze of piping and control lines:

**** Starship SN20 stacked atop Super Heavy Booster #4. The stacking lasted only few hours for fit checks and a photo op. However, it was a great milestone on the road to eventual launch. Later, Booster 4 was moved from the Launch Mount to a separate stand so that work could continue on the Mount.

More Tweets from Elon:

  • Aug 6: “An honor to work with such a great team
  • Aug.6 – Michael Scheetz: “Nice! How many heat shield tiles does Starship 20 need in total to survive reentry?
    • Elon: “It is ~98% done, but the remaining tiles are unique shapes requiring machining

  • Aug.6: “There is a reason no fully reusable orbital rocket has been built – it’s an insanely hard problem. Moreover, it must be rapidly & completely reusable (like an airplane). This is the only way to make life multiplanetary. Efficiencies of scale is why Starship is so large.

  • Aug.6: Elliott – “Will the tanks of the Ship and Booster be stretched over time, like how Falcon 9’s were?
    • Elon: “Inevitably
  • Aug.6: “Over time, we might get orbital payload up to ~150 tons with full reusabity. If Starship then launched as an expendable, payload would be ~250 tons. What isn’t obvious from this chart is that Starship/Super Heavy is much denser than Saturn V.
  • Aug.6: Sheetz – “What’s next after destacking? Pressure tests?
    • Elon: “4 significant items:
      – Final heat shield tiles for ship
      – Thermal protection of booster engines
      – Ground propellant storage tanks
      – QD arm for ship
      2 weeks.

  • Oct.20: Pranay Pathole – “How much tons of payload could Starship deliver to orbit if it were to do an expendable launch? Could it deliver ~300 tons to orbit expendable? That’d be like double of Saturn V!
    • Elon: “Well-optimized Starship would do ~250 tons to orbit as expendable & ~150 tons fully reusable
  • Oct.21 : Toby Li – “Looks like some TPS tiles fell off during the static fire. Do you think this will be a major issue for the orbital launch or does the team already have a solution?
    • Elon: “No, we expect some tiles to shake loose during static fires

*** Elon Musk interview and tour of Boca Chica facility with Tim Dodd, the “Everyday Astronaut. Below are the three videos in which Musk talks with Dodd as they first walk around the build site and then the launch site. Notes on Musk’s comments are available at Starbase Tour and Interview with Elon Musk | Everyday Astronaut.

** Vertical powered landing can be made safe enough for human passenger flights. Here’s a discussion of whether a vertical landing rocket vehicle like the Starship can be safe for human passengers:  Will Starship Landings Ever Be Safe Enough? — Part 1: Engine Reliability

With three engines lighting on each landing, the required engine reliability could be demonstrated with a high degree of confidence with a string of fewer than 100 nominal landings following fixes addressing engine failures on early flights.

Note that this does not take into account the fact that early crew flights will have a small enough complement that landed mass will be low enough for single engine landings, further reducing engine reliability requirements.

All this suggests that however hard other aspects of Starship may be to human-rate, the landing method is not likely to be a blocker to NASA astronauts landing on Earth with Starship this decade.

Orbital tourist flights with small complements require a similar degree of safety. Passenger counts are likely to increase over time as the system is refined and proven out. Eventual airliner-like reliability may or may not happen, but if it doesn’t, the engines, at least as far as soft failures are concerned, are highly unlikely to be bottleneck.

I imagine that somewhere between a 1:100k and 1:1 million whole flight fatality risk would be low enough for most people to feel comfortable using Starship for point to point transport — the most ambitious use case, in terms of required safety.

This would likely call for somewhere between a 1:3 million and 1:300 million risk due to soft engine failures on landing. On the low end, this calls for engine reliability comparable to the Merlin engine. On the high end, we’re looking at less than an order of magnitude improvement in reliability.

** Recent video reports on Boca Chica activities:

*** Hydraulic Actuator Lifted For Fit Checks on Mechazilla’s Chopsticks | SpaceX Boca ChicaNASASpaceflight – YouTube

A hydraulic actuator, used to move the Chopstick arms, was lifted for fit checks. Meanwhile, thermal insulating foam was spotted on Booster 4 around its QD plate and COPVs. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal) and Nic (@NicAnsuini). Edited by Jack (@theJackBeyer).

*** Oct.25: Booster 6 Aft Dome Ready for Sleeving | SpaceX Boca Chica NASASpaceflight – YouTube

The aft dome for Booster 6 was readied for sleeving as crews continue to work on Ship 21. Meanwhile, Perlite expansion furnaces were spotted at the launch site. Perlite is used as an insulator between the cryo shells and GSE tanks. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal) and Nic (@NicAnsuini). Edited by Derek “DK” Knabenbauer (@DKlarations).

*** Oct.24: Ship 21 Nosecone Rolled Out of Production Tent Ahead of Stacking | SpaceX Boca ChicaNASASpaceflight – YouTube

Ship 21’s nosecone rolled out ahead of it being stacked atop its barrel section. Booster 9’s thrust puck was delivered, along with a booster methane transfer tube (aka downcomer). Meanwhile, work on Booster 5, the B2.1 test tank, and Mechazilla’s chopstick arms continued. Video and Pictures from Mary (@BocaChicaGal). Edited by Jack (@theJackBeyer).

**** Oct.23: SpaceX Starship fires up & tower arms go on, NASA to select second HLS, SLS Fully Stacked Marcus House

**** Aug.8: How SpaceX Designed A Heat Shield For The Largest Spacecraft Ever BuiltScott Manley

For the first time we saw the fully assembled Starship/SuperHeavy stack assembled on the pad. This is all designed to put Starship, the largest spacecraft ever built, into orbit, but we also got a really good look at a near complete thermal protection system, and that’s critical to bringing the Starship back from orbit safely.


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

The latest issue:
Space Suit Opportunities, Inspiration4, FAA & Starship
Vol. 16, No. 6, September 22, 2021

Space Frontier Foundation Award for NewSpace Journalism


*** Misc SpaceX news, articles, reports, etc.:


Continue to Roundup Part 1.

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