SpaceX fires Raptor; county judge says test closures still within the law

April 5, 2019

Just before 8 p.m. Wednesday, SpaceX ground crews at Boca Chica conducted the first test firing of the Starship Hopper’s Raptor rocket engine.

Roughly half an hour later, the company’s CEO and lead designer, Elon Musk, posted a dramatic video of the successful test, which briefly but dramatically lit up the launch site with belching fire. He tweeted: "Starhopper completed tethered hop. All systems green."

Ice had delayed the first firing of the engine and inaugural "hop" of the prototype at SpaceX’s launch/test site at Boca Chica Beach, according to an April 2 tweet from Musk.

Specifically, he cited “challenges with ice formation in the cryogenic propellant prevalves” in an April 2 tweet explaining why the stubby prototype hadn’t fired its engine and left the ground. Musk didn’t elaborate, but said he hoped the problem would be resolved soon. That resolution came last night.

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.

Until Wednesday, testing had not progressed beyond fueling the hopper, venting of liquid oxygen and flaring of methane as the ground crew attempted to sort out the problem. 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.”