SpaceX accelerates work at Boca Chica launch site

As revealed via Twitter by SpaceX CEO and Chief Designer Elon Musk in the wee hours of Dec. 23, a stainless-steel prototype of “Starship” — formerly Big Falcon Spacecraft — is under construction at Boca Chica, 25 miles east of Brownsville.

He tweeted that “hopper” test flights at Boca Chica could begin as early as March or April — substantially earlier than the company had previously projected. In recent months the site has taken delivery of a 95,000-gallon liquid oxygen tank and an 80,000-gallon methane tank to support space vehicle tests.

The Twitter photo Musk posted shows a spaceship nose cone alongside a hopper rocket booster, complete with landing legs, that will propel the Starship prototype aloft for test launches and controlled landings.

The prototype spacecraft being built at Boca Chica is shorter than the full-scale version will be, though it’s the same in terms of width, 30 feet, as is the hopper booster, which will be powered by three of SpaceX’s liquid oxygen/methane-powered Raptor engines. The full-scale Starship spacecraft will stand 180 feet tall. Mounted atop the Super Heavy rocket booster (formerly Big Falcon Rocket), the whole thing will stand at 387 feet, roughly the height of a 35-story building.

The Super Heavy will have to be powerful enough to escape Earth’s “deep gravity well,” according to a November tweet from Musk, who intends for a fully developed Starship/Super Heavy launch system to one day get humans to Mars. Starship is designed to carry 100 passengers and 150 tons of cargo to the surface of Mars, according to SpaceX.

“I will do a full technical presentation of Starship after the test vehicle we’re building in Texas flies, so hopefully (tests will begin) March/April,” Musk tweeted last month.

SpaceX, which opened an engine-testing facility in McGregor in 2012, announced early in 2018 that it plans to manufacture Starship and Super Heavy in a former Los Angeles shipyard. Still, at the official groundbreaking for the Boca Chica launch site in September 2014, Musk said he expected the site to eventually have a “fairly significant engineering and (research and development) presence.”

“Some of our larger rockets, in the future, are so big, they’re not going by road,” he said.

The alternative would be building them at Boca Chica, Musk said, adding, “That would be the wise move.”