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 launch and launch as early as this week.
Apparently in the closing stages of the accelerating pace of Starship production and testing, the frequency of NASA astronaut visits to SpaceX’s South Texas facilities has also seen an increase over the past six months.
Back in 2019, SpaceX built Starhopper, performed many tests with early Raptor engine prototypes, and performed two unbound 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 production upgrades that were largely completed in just a few months.
In 2020, SpaceX pushed the new facilities to the limit while continuing major expansions. During 12 months, SpaceX built and tested five small ‘test tanks’ and six full Starship tank parts, performed almost a dozen static Raptor fires with that hardware, jumped two of these tanks (SN5 & SN6) to 150 meters, fully integrated it first full-height Starship (SN8), and almost landed the vehicle after an otherwise flawless 12.5 km (7.8 mi) launch and descent.
Back in 2019, NASA unveiled its first monetary Starship contract with SpaceX, allocating $ 3 million to prototype a coupling mechanism that Starships will need to anchor and refuel in space. In April 2020, NASA revealed that SpaceX – with the launch vehicle Starship – was one of three finalists selected to compete for a Human Landing System (HLS) Moon Lander contract, giving the company $ 135 million of the $ 970 million award to start preliminary design and certification work.
About five months later, a group of NASA astronauts made their first public visit to SpaceX’s Starship evolution hub in South Texas, flying over the factory and launch pad in training aircraft on a routine outing out of the Houston and Johnson Space Center. Days later, SpaceX won a $ 53 million NASA “Tipping Point” contract to demonstrate large-scale cryogenic fuel transfer with a Starship prototype.
Finally, with the exception of solid commercial crews and cargo partnerships, NASA’s relationship with SpaceX and the company’s Starship seems to be getting stronger every day. Although it is difficult to say how indicative of that growth is the visible attention of NASA’s astronaut corps, it is worth noting what the same astronauts have. is not it (public) overflight, visits and tours – namely factories, R&D facilities or prototype hardware from the HLS competitors Dynetics and Blue Origin.
Delayed by about a week, SpaceX is currently preparing to launch its fourth full-size Starship prototype – SN11 – for the first time as early as Monday, March 22, 19 days after Starship SN10 landed shortly after. SpaceX has submitted temporary flight restrictions (TFR) to the FAA for SN11’s launch debut of 10 km (6.2 mi) from Tuesday to Friday, and offers many opportunities for a launch this week if the rocket can successfully test its three Raptor engines by Wednesday.