SpaceX is nearing the next Starship test flight as its Starbase expansion continues

WASHINGTON – As SpaceX prepares for its next Starship test flight, the company is also working to scale up facilities in Texas to build and launch these vehicles.

SpaceX completed a wet dress rehearsal on May 20 of the vehicle that will perform its fourth integrated test flight, filling the vehicle with propellants and going through a practice countdown. That rehearsal was one of the final milestones before SpaceX attempts a launch.

“Starship Flight 4 in about 2 weeks,” says SpaceX CEO Elon Musk mentioned on social media after the test. “The primary goal is to achieve maximum re-entry heating.” The Starship’s upper stage broke apart upon reentry during the previous test flight on March 14.

SpaceX also requires an updated launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. At the 39e Space Symposium in April, Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said it was possible to complete a license change in May, but could not confirm it would be ready by the end of the month.

Another SpaceX official recently said she expected Starship to be ready for launch as soon as the FAA issues the updated license. “We’re still working on licensing with the FAA,” Kathy Lueders, general manager of Starbase and a former NASA administrator responsible for human spaceflight programs, said at a May 14 event in Harlingen, Texas, saying she had “a few last-minute finishing touches.”

“We hope to have the license in place by the end of May, beginning of June,” she said. “The first day we get that license, we will fly.”

Much of her presentation to a local economics group focused on the development of Starbase itself, where SpaceX produces Starship ships and Super Heavy boosters. Lueders said more than 3,000 people, including both SpaceX employees and contractors, work daily at the site, located at the end of a two-lane highway near where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.

“We have poured billions into this area to get the facilities ready,” she said. “It’s not easy to build at the end of Highway 4.” A slide from her presentation notes that SpaceX has invested more than $3 billion in Starbase infrastructure since the facility’s symbolic groundbreaking in 2014 and currently spends $1.1 billion annually on Starbase and other facilities it has in Texas . She said an update to a 2021 economic impact report on the company’s operations should be ready in the coming weeks.

A priority is to build a large production facility, called the “Starfactory,” covering one million square feet and replacing the tents that had been used to build Starship components. “Elon said a year ago, ‘You know what, we need to get rid of these tents and this will now be a permanent location,’” she recalls. “So we’re going to build a giant Starship factory.” She later said the company plans to have that plant completed by the end of the year.

SpaceX is building an office building to consolidate the engineering workforce at Starbase, she said, along with a second high-rise. The company is also building a second orbital launch pad for Starship near the existing platform.

In addition to the infrastructure in Texas, SpaceX has been working on a Starship launch complex at the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A in Florida. The FAA announced May 10 that it began work on an environmental impact statement to address updated Starship infrastructure there, while a parallel Department of the Air Force effort is exploring potential Starship launch facilities at two sites in neighboring Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

Musk suggested at a 2022 event that Starbase would become the “cutting-edge R&D site” for Starship work, with Florida hosting operational launches, but Lueders said there will be opportunities for both Texas and Florida to support Starship missions.

“We need two launch areas to meet our manifesto,” she said, specifically launching spacecraft for the NASA Human Landing System program. “A single landing requires 15 tanker launches, and they must be carried out within a certain time.” That estimate of 15 tanker launches is higher than what other company officials have previously stated, including an estimate of “ten-ish” launches in January.

“This will be our workhorse area,” she concluded, “but we will also need the base in Florida to accommodate the number and sequence of missions.”

She said she was also working on other aspects of Starbase and its impact on the community, from employees’ quality of life to improving traffic on the single road leading to the site. “Right now it’s a critical stage for us,” she said, adding that discussions are underway with local and state officials on topics such as the timing of traffic lights on the road to Starbase and encouraging hotel and restaurant development on the east side of Brownsville. the part closest to Starbase.

These have also included discussions about later infrastructure improvements for Starbase, she said, “to have a place for us to do business long-term at the end of Highway 4.”

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