Ice delays rocket firing

Ice is the reason SpaceX’s Starship Hopper hasn’t “hopped” yet at the company’s launch/test site at Boca Chica Beach, according to the company’s CEO and lead designer, Elon Musk.

Specifically, he cited “challenges with ice formation in the cryogenic propellant prevalves” in an April 2 tweet explaining why the stubby prototype hasn’t fired its engine and left the ground. Musk didn’t elaborate, but said he hopes the problem is resolved soon.

Meanwhile, Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. characterized any inconvenience to residents from road and beach closures during testing as “growing pains,” and said it’s his understanding that SpaceX may pause testing at the site for up to 60 days after the current round is complete. The company did not confirm a specific timeline once current testing objectives are complete.

The Starship Hopper was transported from the SpaceX yard the roughly 1.5 miles east to the launch site on March 8 in preparation for checking new ground systems and conducting a “short static fire test” of its single, liquid oxygen-methane fueled Raptor engine.

All eyes have been on SpaceX Boca Chica since late December when Musk first tweeted photos of a rudimentary, stainless-steel-clad rocket under construction there — and especially since Cameron County began closing S.H. 4 and Boca Chica Beach for several hours a day in the last three weeks for testing.

The gleaming upper portion of the hopper, which gave the craft a classic, vintage/futuristic look, was damaged by high winds in January and not replaced after being deemed nonessential.

Testing so far appears not to have gone beyond fueling the hopper, venting of liquid oxygen and flaring of methane as the ground crew attempts to sort things out. The company said earlier this month that initial hops would be tethered and not visible off site.

The current prototype’s hops will be suborbital, though an orbital version is under construction at Boca Chica. The final Starship spaceship and Super Heavy rocket booster, once built, will dwarf the test vehicle now perched at Boca Chica. SpaceX intends the Starship/Super Heavy to carry humans to Mars in the not-too-distant future.

SpaceX’s original plans called for up to 12 commercial launches a year from Boca Chica, accompanied by closures of S.H. 4 and Boca Chica. The new focus on testing and prototype construction, however, has entailed several consecutive days of testing and more frequent closures than initially anticipated.

Trevino said it’s still within the terms that allow Cameron County, the Texas Department of Transportation and Texas General Land Office to authorize the closures of S.H. 4 and Boca Chica Beach during SpaceX operations in order to protect public health and safety.

“It’s still within the parameters,” he said. “We’re in contact with GLO and SpaceX to see if anything needs to be updated.”

Trevino said he regrets that the situation is causing inconvenience for some residents, but begs the public’s patience and understanding, saying there’s ultimately a bigger benefit to Brownsville, the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas.

“Now they’re building and assembling and testing,” he said. “Their mission has expanded and I think that’s great. … We’re just trying to get through this leg of testing.”

Considering the complexity and cutting-edge nature of what SpaceX is doing at Boca Chica, it shouldn’t be a surprise if testing takes longer than anticipated, Trevino said, adding that in the interest of safety such things can’t be rushed.

“They’re testing all kinds of parts,” he said. “This is rocket science.”