In 15 hours, SpaceX has rolled a new Starship to its South Texas launch and test facilities, reassembled the world’s largest rocket, launched Starlink satellites to orbit, and recovered a reused Falcon 9 booster in port.
The burst of activity began around sunset at SpaceX’s Starbase rocket factory in Boca Chica, Texas when a new orbital-class Starship prototype left its ‘nest’ for the first time. SpaceX rolled the Starship – known as Ship 25 – a few miles down the highway to its nearby launch and test facilities, where workers connected it to a large crane and waited for daylight.
Around 9 am CDT the following day, October 20th, SpaceX lifted Ship 25 onto one of two Starship test stands, where it will eventually attempt to complete several qualification tests. While Ship 25 was still suspended in mid-air, the Starbase launch pad’s orbital launch tower began lifting a different prototype, Ship 24, into the air with a pair of giant ‘chopsticks’ – mechanical arms designed by SpaceX to replace one of the largest mobile cranes in the world.
Then, while it was stacking Ship 24 on top of Super Heavy Booster 7 and installing Ship 25 on a test stand, a Falcon 9 rocket carrying 54 new Starlink satellites lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Minutes prior, SpaceX finished craning a reused Falcon 9 booster off one of its drone ship landing platforms in a port ten miles south.
Starlink 4-36 was SpaceX’s 48th launch of 2022 and 56th launch in less than 12 months, so its Falcon launch program simply doesn’t have time to waste. Drone ship Just Read The Instructions (JRTI) returned to port with Falcon 9 booster B1069 about 12 hours before the rocket was transferred from the ship’s deck to a stand on SpaceX’s Port Canaveral dock space. The company will now be able to retract B1069’s legs and complete any necessary booster and drone ship refurbishment, ensuring that both will be ready for their next missions in the near future.
Back in Texas, SpaceX is scheduled to begin thoroughly testing a fully-stacked Starship rocket for the first time as early as Monday, October 24th. Ship 24 was reinstalled on Booster 7 for that purpose after SpaceX disassembled the pair for several days, possibly due to forecasts of high winds. The test campaign is expected to begin with the first full wet dress rehearsal (WDR) of a two-stage Starship, meaning that the rocket will be fully loaded with thousands of tons of liquid methane and oxygen propellant and run through a simulated launch countdown that ends just before engine ignition.
If successful, SpaceX will likely restart Booster 7 static fire testing and continue to work its way up to the first simultaneous ignition of all 33 of its Raptor 2 engines. If the pair survive WDR and static fire testing, SpaceX could begin preparing the same rocket for Starship’s orbital launch debut.
If significant issues arise during testing, SpaceX could choose to retire Ship 24 and/or Booster 7 and move on to a new and improved pair: likely Ship 25 and Booster 8 or 9. Already complete, Super Heavy Booster 8 has been sitting untouched at Starbase’s launch site for weeks, making it uncertain whether SpaceX actually intends to test or use the prototype. Booster 9 is just one stack away from completion, at which point it will be ready to begin proof testing. According to CEO Elon Musk, B9 features significant improvements that will make it more resilient to mid-flight Raptor engine failures. It could also be the first Super Heavy booster with no hydraulic system, thanks to a new version of Raptor that replaces hydraulic thrust vectoring with a battery-powered alternative.
Starship S25 could kick off its own proof testing as early as next week. Unlike Ship 24, Ship 25 went straight from the factory to a test stand that has been modified with six hydraulic rams. Those rams will simulate the thrust of six Raptor 2 engines (up to ~1400 tons or 3.1M lbf) while the Starship is simultaneously loaded with cryogenic liquid oxygen and/or nitrogen, combining peak mechanical and thermal stresses into one test. Once Ship 25 is done, it will be rolled back to the factory for Raptor engine installation and will eventually return to the pad for static fire testing.