A group of NASA astronauts appear to have taken an agency-sanctioned trip down to SpaceX’s Boca Chica Starship facilities, including a visit with a prototype scheduled to fire up and launch as early as this week.
Seemingly in lockstep with the accelerating pace of Starship production and testing, the frequency of NASA astronaut visits to SpaceX’s South Texas facilities has also seen an uptick over the last six or so months.
Back in 2019, SpaceX built Starhopper, performed numerous tests with early Raptor engine prototypes, and performed two untethered hops. With that success in hand, SpaceX turned its focus to Starship Mk1 and suffered an almost immediate failure during pressure testing, encouraging a series of rapid manufacturing upgrades largely completed in just a few months’ time.
In 2020, SpaceX pushed those new facilities to the limits while continuing major expansions. In 12 months, SpaceX built and tested five small ‘test tanks’ and six full Starship tank sections, performed almost a dozen Raptor static fires with that hardware, hopped two of those tanks (SN5 & SN6) to 150m, fully integrated the first full-height Starship (SN8), and nearly landed that vehicle after an otherwise flawless 12.5 km (7.8 mi) launch and descent.
Back in 2019, NASA inked its first monetary Starship contract with SpaceX, awarding $3M to prototype a coupling mechanism Starships will need to dock and refuel in space. In April 2020, NASA revealed that SpaceX – with its Starship launch vehicle – was one of three finalists selected to compete for a Human Landing System (HLS) Moon lander contract, providing the company $135M of the full $970M award to begin preliminary design and certification work.
Around five months later, a group of NASA astronauts made their first public visit to SpaceX’s Starship development hub in South Texas, overflying the factory and launch pad in training jets on a routine sortie out of Houston and Johnson Space Center. Days later, SpaceX won a $53M NASA “Tipping Point” contract to demonstrate large-scale cryogenic propellant transfer with a Starship prototype.
Ultimately, excluding rock-solid commercial crew and cargo partnerships, NASA’s relationship with SpaceX and the company’s Starship appears to be growing stronger every day. While it’s hard to say just how indicative of that growth the visible attention of NASA’s astronaut corps is, it’s worth taking note of what those same astronauts aren’t (publicly) overflying, visiting, and touring – namely factories, R&D facilities, or prototype hardware of HLS competitors Dynetics and Blue Origin.
Delayed by about a week, SpaceX is currently preparing to fire up its fourth full-size Starship prototype – SN11 – for the first time as early as Monday, March 22nd, 19 days after Starship SN10 briefly landed in one piece. SpaceX has filed temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) with the FAA for SN11’s 10 km (6.2 mi) launch debut from Tuesday through Friday, leaving plenty of opportunities for a launch this week if the rocket can successfully test its three Raptor engines by Wednesday.
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