SpaceX ramps up Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy booster testing in Central Texas

In the latest twist in the saga of SpaceX’s McGregor, Texas testing facilities, a new Falcon 9 booster has managed to sneak past a network of unofficial observers to create a whole different kind of rocket traffic jam.

On the heels of a single day (March 19th) filled with at least five different tests of Merlin and Raptor engines and a Falcon Heavy booster, SpaceX was apparently satisfied with the results from the Heavy center core’s final major qualification test. On March 24th, the day after yet another five-test day in McGregor, SpaceX hooked up a crane to B1066 and brought the booster horizontal to prepare for transport to Cape Canaveral, Florida.

That very same day, a local resident and avid McGregor hawk spotted a new Falcon 9 booster arriving (or recently uncovered) at the test facility. Three days later, the Falcon 9 booster was brought vertical and installed on the facility’s largest test stand for a routine qualification static fire. For McGregor, particularly after a relatively slow 12-18 months of Falcon first stage testing, having two new boosters simultaneously onsite – let alone two new boosters vertical within ~72 hours of each other – is a massive change of pace.

In January 2021, some two months after arriving in Texas, the second of at least two new Falcon Heavy side boosters (B1064 and B1065) went vertical at McGregor, quickly wrapped up its static fire test campaign, and arrived at Cape Canaveral by the end of the month. Roughly a week later, Falcon Heavy Flight 4’s center core (B1066) arrived in McGregor and went vertical a few weeks after that. It’s possible that B1066 performed a static fire test that month, but the booster did unequivocally fire up on March 19th.

Days later, Falcon 9 B1067 is vertical on the same McGregor booster test stand and could potentially fire up anywhere from a few days to a few weeks from now. Combined with an October 2020 static fire of the first Falcon Heavy Flight 4 side booster static fire, all three of the massive rocket’s first stage boosters will likely be qualified and ready for flight within a week or two.

Notably, for McGregor, three new Falcon booster static fire tests in approximately three (or even four) months is a huge change of pace. Thanks almost exclusively to the success of Falcon Block 5 reusability since its 2018 debut, SpaceX booster production has consistently declined year over year, dropping to just five new booster deliveries in 2020 – the lowest production rate since 2013.

SpaceX has been ramping up Falcon fairing and expendable upper stage production to levels never seen before to achieve a record 26 launches in 2020, potentially explaining that record low. However, in 2021, McGregor appears to be on track to test and ship three new boosters in four months (or less), extrapolating to an annual cadence of nine or more booster tests.

Aside from last week’s F9 B1067 surprise, SpaceX needs to build, test, and deliver at least one more Falcon Heavy center core between now and the end of Q3 for an October launch. If SpaceX can partially maintain the throughput implied by delivering B1066 and B1067 to McGregor just seven weeks apart, it’s not infeasible that the company could manage the first uptick in Falcon booster production since 2017.

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