SpaceX prioritizing Boca Chica Starship construction

SpaceX crews stand on a work platform along the exterior of the remains of the Starship MK 1 prototype Thursday at the company's facility outside Brownsville. Mk1 was damaged in a failed cryogenic pressurization test and the company is now focusing on building the Starship MK 3 prototype.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

For several months, SpaceX’s crew building the Starship Mk1 prototype at Boca Chica was engaged in a friendly competition with the company’s team at work on the Mk2 at Cocoa, Fla., near Cape Canaveral.

Since the Mk1 was damaged in a failed cryogenic pressurization test on Nov. 20, however, SpaceX has paused the Florida program to concentrate on Starship Mk3 construction at Boca Chica. Work on the Mk3 is already underway and the crippled Mk1 has been dismantled.

SpaceX’s recovery vessel GO Discovery arrived at the Port of Brownsville in recent days with a rocket bulkhead and other parts from the Florida yard, presumably to expedite construction of the Mk3.

Elon Musk, SpaceX founder and CEO, tweeted after the Nov. 20 incident that the company had already decided it wouldn’t launch the Mk1, though the original plan had been to take the suborbital craft up to 20 kilometers (65,000 feet), possibly before the end of the year.

SpaceX characterized the incident as a minor event rather than a serious setback, and not a complete surprise considering the aim of the test was to “pressurize systems to the max.”

Although the Mk1 proved to be a “valuable manufacturing pathfinder,” design of the Mk3 will be very different, Musk tweeted. The six-engined Mk3 will be built for orbital flight, unlike the Mk1 or the Mk2, which may also never fly.

SpaceX said some of its Florida Starship activity is on hold while the focus is on Mk3 construction, though it has not shut operations down entirely or laid off any employees there. Some temporary employees left the company on their own, while others who were working on Starship development at Cocoa have been offered the opportunity to continue doing so at Boca Chica, or else remain in Florida to support other SpaceX activities, according to the company.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is advertising a number of open positions for the Mk3 project at Boca Chica, including engineers, supervisors, technicians, welders, fabricators and pipe benders. New construction is underway on the launch site itself as well, including a sprawling new launch/landing pad.

Signs newly affixed to fences surrounding the area identify it as the “SpaceX Starship Super Heavy Orbital Launch Pad Boca Chica, TX.”

Starship is the name of the orbital spacecraft that SpaceX hopes to eventually crew and render capable of carrying 100 passengers. Super Heavy is the massive, recoverable booster that will push Starship into orbit and some day to the moon and Mars with people aboard — if things go according to plan.

During an update on Starship development progress Musk gave at Boca Chica on Sept. 28, he said Starship test vehicles beginning with the Mk3 would be lighter, less expensive and more streamlined than the earlier versions, though they will be clad in stainless steel like the Mk1 and Mk2. The company also aims to build Starships and Super Heavy boosters as fast it can, he said.

“ It’s going to be really nutty to see a bunch of these things, I mean, not just one but a whole stack of them,” Musk said. “We’re improving both the design and the manufacturing method exponentially. … This is going to sound totally nuts, but I think we want to try to reach orbit in less than six months.”

sclark@brownsvilleherald.com