2019 brings test flight: A signal year for SpaceX activities

It was in 2019 that things really came to life at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch and test site, after a few years of quiet, incremental preparation.

In December 2018, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted first photos of what came to be known as Starhopper, the first, crude prototype of the company’s Starship development program.

The quiet came to an end abruptly in early April with a quick, fiery test of the single Raptor rocket engine mounted in Starhopper, which some observers likened to a water tower with fins. A second test followed a couple of days later, with the test vehicle making a brief hop off the ground to the end of its tether.

Then, on Aug. 27, the day after a last-second abort due to ignition issues, SpaceX launched the Starhopper to an altitude of about 500 feet and set it down again on an adjacent landing pad. The flight, lasting just under a minute, prompted Musk to tweet: “Starhopper flight successful. Water towers ‘can’ fly haha!!”

The Starhopper will never fly again, but may be used as a vertical engine test stand, according to the company. The 165-foot-tall Starship Mk1, the first full-size prototype, served as the backdrop for Musk’s Sept. 28 Boca Chica presentation on the program’s progress. The Mk2 was under construction at Cocoa, Fla.

The original plan was to launch the three-engined, non-orbital Mk1 to an altitude of 65,000 feet and landing it at Boca Chica, possibly before the end of 2019. On Nov. 20, however, the prototype was damaged in a failed pressurization test, though SpaceX said it had already decided by that juncture that the prototype would not be launched.

“Mk1 served as a valuable manufacturing pathfinder but flight design is quite different,” Musk tweeted in November. “The decision had already been made to not fly this test article and the team is focused on the Mk3 builds, which are designed for orbit.”

Work had begun at Boca Chica on the Mk3 even before the Mk1 was dismantled. SpaceX has paused some portion of its Starship development activity in Florida and diverted resources and manpower to Boca Chica to expedite construction of Mk3. The company’s recovery vessel GO Discovery arrived at the Port of Brownsville in early December carrying large components from the Florida build site.

During his Sept. 28 presentation, Musk said SpaceX plans to build Starships — and the Super Heavy boosters that will push them into orbit — at both sites as fast as it can turn them out.

“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,” he said. “We’re improving both the design and the manufacturing method exponentially.