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

WASHINGTON — As SpaceX prepares for its next Starship test flight, the company is also working to increase facilities in Texas to build and launch those vehicles.

SpaceX completed a wet dress rehearsal on May 20 of the vehicle that will conduct its fourth integrated test flight, fueling the vehicle and going through a practice countdown. This rehearsal was one of the last stages before SpaceX attempted to launch.

“Starship 4 flight in about 2 weeks,” Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, they said on social media after the test. “The main goal is to go through maximum reheat.” Starship’s upper stage, or craft, disintegrated during re-entry on the previous test flight on March 14.

SpaceX will also need an updated FAA launch license. At 39th Space Symposium in April, Kelvin Coleman, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said completion of the license modification in May was possible, but did not confirm it would be ready by the end of the month.

Another SpaceX representative said recently that he expects the Starship to be ready for launch as soon as the FAA issues the updated license. “We’re still working on the licensing with the FAA,” said Kathy Lueders, Starbase’s general manager and former NASA associate administrator for human spaceflight programs, at a May 14 event in Harlingen, Texas, saying “they’re going through a few t’s crossed and i’s dotted at the last minute.’

“We’re hoping to get the license by the end of May, beginning of June,” she said. “The first day we get that license we’ll be flying.”

Much of her presentation to a local economic group focused on the company’s development of the Starbase itself, where SpaceX manufactures Starships and Super Heavy boosters. Lueders said more than 3,000 people, including 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’ve put 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 noted that SpaceX has invested more than $3 billion in Starbase infrastructure since the facility’s symbolic groundbreaking in 2014, and is currently spending 1 .1 billion a year at Starbase and other facilities it has in Texas. She said an updated 2021 economic impact report on the company’s operations should be ready in the next few weeks.

A priority is the construction of a large manufacturing facility called the “Starfactory”, covering a million square feet and replacing the tents used to build Starship components. “A year ago, Elon said, ‘You know what, we need to get rid of these tents and this is going to be a permanent place,'” she recalled. “So we’re going to build a gigafactory for Starship.” She later said the company plans to have that factory 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 bay. The company is also building a second orbital launch pad for Starship near the existing pad.

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

Musk suggested at an event in 2022 that Starbase would become an “advanced research and development site” for Starship work with Florida hosting operational launches, but Lueders said there would be options for both Texas and Florida to support Starship missions.

“We need two launch sites to be able to fulfill our manifesto,” she said, specifically Starship launches for NASA’s Human Landing System program. “One landing would require 15 tanker launches and they would have to be done within a certain period of time.” This estimate of 15 tanker launches is greater than what other company officials have previously stated, including rating for “ten” launches provided in January.

“That will be our workhorse,” she concluded, “but we’ll also need the base in Florida to be able to do the number and sequence of missions.”

She said she is also working on other aspects of Starbase and its effect on the community, from the quality of life for employees to improving traffic on the only road that leads to the site. “Right now it’s a critical phase for us,” she said, with discussions underway with local and state officials on topics such as traffic light timing on the way to Starbase and encouraging hotel and restaurant development on the east side of Brownsville, the part that is closest to the Starbase.

Those have also been discussions about later infrastructure improvements for Starbase, she said, “so that we have a place where we can do business long-term at the end of Highway 4.”

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