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Testing of the SN5 has started, first one complete.
Hours after a successful Falcon 9 launch, a SpaceX Starship prototype has kicked off a challenging gauntlet of tests for the fifth time in hopes of becoming the first to take flight.
Five days after the ~30m (~100 ft) tall steel rocket was transported from the factory to the launch pad, SpaceX has fully integrated it with a brand new launch mount – built from scratch after operator error caused Starship SN4 to explode and destroy the prior mount. Assembled and outfitted with great haste, the new mount was completed just a day or two before Starship SN5 was moved to the pad and installed on top of it.
Triggered by a quick disconnect umbilical panel fuel leak that effectively caused a bomb-like fuel-air explosion, Starship SN4’s May 29th demise occurred shortly after a Raptor static fire test that was likely one of the last hurdles standing between SpaceX and the first full-scale Starship flight test. That fated static fire itself occurred a single day after SpaceX crossed a major regulatory milestone with an official FAA launch license for an effectively unlimited number of suborbital Starship flights. Now transformed into a pile of scorched scrap metal, Starship SN4 has passed the torch to Starship SN5.
Effectively identical to the gauntlet of tests Starship SN4 completed in the weeks prior to its destruction, Starship SN5 has kicked off its own test campaign with an ambient pressure test – a low-risk method of checking a pressure vessel for leaks. Starship SN5 apparently passed that first test without issue and SpaceX is now in the midst of loading the rocket tank section with cryogenic liquid nitrogen as a chemically neutral and nonexplosive stand-in for live liquid oxygen and methane propellant. (SN4 serves as a perfect illustration of why initial cryo proof tests are performed with LN2 instead of real propellant.)
SN4 was actually the first full-scale Starship prototype to survive a full cryogenic proof test, achieving 7.5 bar (~110 psi), so SN5’s success is far from guaranteed. Still, given SpaceX’s iterative, clockwork-like approach to development means that it’s far more likely than not that Starship SN5 will pass all the tests that its predecessor did – and then some.
If Starship SN5’s cryo proof is successful, SpaceX has a few options available. Depending on the level of confidence in SN5, SpaceX could proceed directly into installing a single Raptor engine on the rocket’s triple-engine thrust structure and move on to wet dress rehearsals (WDRs) with methane and oxygen propellant. If a more cautious approach is preferred, SpaceX could perform a WDR or two before installing a Raptor engine. Either way, once the WDR phase is complete, Starship SN5 can begin live Raptor engine testing, starting with turbopump prime and preburner tests and culminating in one or several static fires.
Finally, once preburner and static fires have been completed without issue, SpaceX can begin to seriously prepare SN5 for its inaugural hop test, likely targeting an altitude of ~150m (~500 ft) before landing a few hundred feet from the launch mount. For now, many steps remain in the interim before Starship SN5 is even close to a hop test, but it shouldn’t take long to find out how long we’ll have to wait.
WASHINGTON — Virgin Galactic announced July 15 it is bringing in a Disney executive as the company’s new chief executive officer, with the company’s longtime chief executive moving into a new role.
Virgin Galactic announced shortly after markets closed that Michael Colglazier will become chief executive, effective July 20. Colglazier previously was president and managing director of Disney Parks International, the part of Disney that oversees its amusement parks in the United States and elsewhere.
George Whitesides, who has been chief executive of Virgin Galactic since 2010, will remain with the company, becoming its first “chief space officer” focused on future business opportunities, including point-to-point high-speed travel and orbital spaceflight. Whitesides will also serve as chair of the company’s space advisory board.
“George has been focused on driving progress in these future areas while also successfully moving the company towards commercial markets,” said Chamath Palihapitiya, chairman of Virgin Galactic, in a conference call with analysts. “By creating this new role of a chief space officer, we’re going to allow George the ability to dedicate his time and skill sets to brings these really important areas forward.”
Colglazier will focus on the suborbital spaceflight business, including the customer experience, leveraging his more than three decades of experience at Disney. “His skill set is so complementary to what we’re trying to so,” Palihapitiya said, citing a “proven track record of successfully managing and commercializing new, innovative products all around the world.”
That includes the “customer experience” for Virgin Galactic’s customers. “I’m really confident that he’s going to create an amazing customer experience for our future astronauts,” he said. “We’ve all talked about how we can create an incredible experience not just for the astronauts but everybody that comes to Spaceport America. I think Michael understands how to do that.”
The selection of Colglazier was part of a search process that lasted several months, Palihapitiya said, after he and Whitesides discussed long-term succession planning. Colglazier said he was not aware of the opportunity until he was contacted by a search firm.
“Opportunities like this one do not come along very often, and this was a truly extraordinary opportunity, and I couldn’t pass it up,” he said. “Taking on the role of CEO of Virgin Galactic at this point in the company’s growth trajectory is perfectly suited to my background and experience.”
He argued that both Disney and Virgin Galactic had similar emphases on service, innovation and “delivering unique, unforgettable experiences.” He didn’t go into details about how he would implement that experience from Disney at Virgin Galactic.
“Job one is, let’s just get in and understand and learn, and I’ll be part of helping achieve the vision,” he said.
Whitesides he’ll work “side by side” with Colglazier over the next several months to help the new chief executive get up to speed, while focusing more attention on future business opportunities. The company has, in recent months, announced Space Act Agreements with NASA to develop a “private orbital astronaut readiness program” and to work on technologies for high-speed point-to-point transportation.
He didn’t give a specific timeframe for when those new markets might start generating revenue for the company. “There are some really interesting opportunities, I think, in the relatively near term,” he said, particularly on orbital spaceflight. “With this announcement today, I think I’ll be able to dedicate a lot of my energy to bringing in point-to-point.”
The company’s main suborbital spaceflight business also has yet to generate any meaningful revenue, but executives said they are getting closer to commercial operations. After the most recent SpaceShipTwo unpowered test flight June 25, Virgin Galactic announced that it would soon be ready to move into a final series of powered test flights. The company also plans to unveil the cabin interior of SpaceShipTwo in a July 28 virtual event.
“You’re going to see a drumbeat of progress here going into August and beyond. All of it is very constructive,” Palihapitiya said.
“I think it’s fair to say that we are now within spitting distance” of beginning commercial flights, he added, “and we are on a multi-month march to commercial ops.”
Palihapitiya praised Whitesides for building up the company from 30 people when he started as chief executive in 2010 to more than 900 today. That tenure included development of SpaceShipTwo, which has suffered delays and technical problems, including a 2014 crash that killed a Scaled Composites test pilot. More recently, it included a merger with Palihapitiya’s Social Capital Hedosophia last year that made Virgin Galactic a publicly traded company.
“It’s been an honor and privilege to serve as the first CEO of Virgin Galactic and The Spaceship Company over the last 10 years,” Whitesides said. “As we are on the cusp of achieving our next goal of commercial operations, I think now is exactly the right time for me to transition.”
A Starship part spotted on July 20th confirms that SpaceX is already well into the process of building a significantly upgraded full-scale prototype.
Following in the footsteps of five or six full-scale ships before it, information published by NASASpaceflight.com suggests that Starship SN8 will be a substantial departure from its predecessors. Thanks to data gathered by testing the Starship SN7 test tank to destruction on June 24th, SpaceX has determined that a different alloy – known as 304L – is superior to the 301 stainless steel all Starship prototypes have been built out of up to now.
SN8 is SpaceX’s response to that discovery. As usual, the company has performed smaller tests before deciding to build a full-scale Starship prototype – identical to all previous SNx prototypes beyond the alloy change – out of 304L stainless steel. As a result, Starship SN8 – once complete – may have the most potential of any prototype built thus far, but its fate will also be more uncertain than most of its predecessors.
On June 24th, SpaceX destroyed the SN7 Starship test tank as part of a controlled cryogenic proof test – essentially a pressure test at cryogenic (ultra-cold) temperatures. Departing from routine, CEO Elon Musk never commented on the test, leaving its results shrouded in mystery. According to NASASpaceflight, however, SN7 “achieved a record pressure before it failed.”
Designed to test a different formulation of stainless steel, that success implies that SN7 proved that the 304L alloy will not only be more malleable and forgiving at cryogenic temperatures – but is also more capable overall compared to 301 steel. To beat the record set by the second or third Starship test tank in January or March 2020, SN7 would have had to reach pressures of ~8.6 bar or higher – effectively icing on the cake for the already-demonstrated ~140% safety factor.
A full-scale Starship has yet to survive proof tests at those pressures but Starship SN4 did become the first to complete a full cryo proof, sustaining ~7.5 bar (~110 psi) before it was safely depressurized. Currently on the pad and preparing for an imminent static fire and hop test debut, Starship SN5 is unlikely to put pressure on that record unless that it aces both of the aforementioned trials. Built entirely out of the 304L alloy already proven to be superior to 301, SN8 may well be the golden goose of prototypes.
The appearance of SN8’s labeled common dome – the dome separating Starship’s liquid oxygen and methane tanks – implies that a variety of other parts spotted over the last few days are also meant for the next full-scale rocket. Mounted on a stand purpose-built for the task, the SN8 common dome will soon be ‘sleeved’ by one or several stacked steel rings, after which it can be welded to the rest of the Starship’s tank. An engine section and thrust structure – likely SN8’s – in the late stages of assembly was spotted three days prior, while an upper tank dome that could be for either SN8 or test tank SN7.1 was captured in the same photos.
In the last photo, taken on July 13th, there’s even signs of what could be Starship SN9 – hinted at by the appearance of two Starship engine sections signified by the pattern of welds on their exteriors. Those welds are incontrovertible signs of the stringers used to strengthen Starship engine sections and they haven’t been used anywhere else on past prototypes.
Based on the sheer number of steel rings and domes currently floating around SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas Starship factory, SN8 could be a just a week – or even less – away from final stacking operations. If SN5 leaves the pad intact and completes its wet dress rehearsal, static fire, and flight debut without issue, SN8 could be up to bat much sooner than later.
Virgin Galactic plans to conducts its next crewed spaceflight test on Oct. 22, according to documents the company filed with the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday.
The flight will be the first of two that the space tourism company has planned to complete testing of its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft system and should have just two test pilots on board. Virgin Galactic said last month that the second test spaceflight will then have four “mission specialists” inside the cabin. If both test flights succeed, Virgin Galactic expects to fly founder Sir Richard Branson in the first quarter of 2021 – a milestone that will mark the beginning of the company’s commercial tourism service.
Shares of Virgin Galactic closed down 3.7% on Friday at $15.92 a share.
A Virgin Galactic spokesperson confirmed the filing’s accuracy but noted that the Oct. 22 date marks the beginning of a flight window, so the launch may happen in the days following. Before the Oct. 22 spaceflight, Virgin Galactic said in the filing that it plans to conduct four-hour test flights of the spacecraft’s carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, with those flights scheduled for Oct. 1 and Oct. 7.
Virgin Galactic’s next spaceflight will be its first from the company’s operating base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. It will also be Virgin Galactic’s first spaceflight since February 2019, when the company launched chief astronauts trainer Beth Moses as the spacecraft’s first test passenger.