Starbase general manager discusses future plans at invite-only Brownsville event

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Starbase General Manager discusses Starship launches and other SpaceX matters during an invitation-only presentation Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2023, at the Brownsville Events Center. (Steve Clark/The Brownsville Herald)

Starbase General Manager Kathy Lueders said Tuesday that SpaceX’s plan is to make the company’s Boca Chica complex its “premier manufacturing, launching and operational center for our Starship.”

SpaceX’s billionaire founder and CEO Elon Musk rattled local SpaceX supporters last year when he suggested during a Feb. 10, 2022, presentation that Starbase might be better suited as the company’s advanced research and development location, with Cape Canaveral serving as Starship’s “main operational launch site,” depending on when and if the Federal Aviation Administration approved SpaceX’s launch license for an orbital flight test from Starbase.

The FAA ultimately approved two such flights, the first of which took place on April 20 and the second on Nov. 18. Lueders (pronounced “leaders”) was the featured speaker for a city of Brownsville’s invitation-only “post-launch coffee talk” at the Brownsville Events Center on Tuesday. The former NASA assistant administrator, who served as the agency’s human spaceflight chief, stepped down from that position in April and was hired by SpaceX in May.

During her presentation, Lueders discussed details of the first two orbital test flights and future plans for Starbase — the company’s Boca Chica rocket development complex that currently employs more than 2,100 full-time workers.

“It’s (a) very, very exciting time here at SpaceX,” she said. “Starbase is really becoming a transformational piece of SpaceX.”

Lueders described seeing the Nov. 18 launch from a vantage point less than three miles away as a “phenomenal event for me.” The 7 a.m. launch shook buildings and rattled windows dozens of miles away.

“I hope you all were able to enjoy it,” Lueders said. “I know that folks were maybe a little surprised by how much they heard it here in Brownsville.”

Her house two miles away from the launch site was unscathed despite the intense vibration, she said, noting that SpaceX measures sound and vibration levels “across the board” to make sure they’re within limits agreed to by the FAA for each launch.

“Rockets are very loud but they’re going into the air very, very quickly,” Lueders said. “The Florida folks, they’re very used to those rumbles through the afternoons and the mornings. It’s kind of cool to be able to see a rocket launch from your backyard, so don’t ever let that get old for you. Because it’s never gotten old for me.”

SpaceX will continue to monitor how weather and wind conditions and cloud cover affect how sound carries and use that data to inform area residents what to expect with future launches, she said. Lueders said SpaceX is already in the process of updating data and submitting applications for the third and fourth orbital test flights from Starbase.

The Starship team learned a huge amount from data collected during the April 20 flight — which ended with the rocket self-destructing after stage separation failed to occur — and used that information to improve the Starship-Super Heavy used for the second flight, she said. The second-stage, six-engine Starship atop the first-stage, 33-engine Super Heavy (producing 16 million pounds of thrust) stands nearly 400 feet tall.

As with SpaceX’s earlier rockets, the Starship team continues to “improve and assess and push the envelope and learn from the vehicles.”

The Nov. 18 flight likewise ended with the booster and Starship self-destructing, but only after a successful “hot stage” separation that the SpaceX team met with jubilation. Lueders said Starship’s anomaly investigation team was still looking into why the Nov. 18 flight’s Automated Flight Termination Systems were activated.

With stage-separation passing the test on Nov. 18, subsequent test flights will be aimed at proving out different parts of the system, she said. SpaceX has a contract with NASA to develop Starship as a Human Landing System to return astronauts to the moon in the next few years as part of the agency’s Artemis program.

“This next year’s going to be really, really critical for us to continue to test out and being able to kind of move the Starship into its next level of being able to accomplish its mission, along with us looking at reuse of the booster and being able to perform landing operations. … Our goal is to be able to bring the big booster back, and be able to use it and turn it around and launch again,” Lueders said.

Same for Starship, which has a 100-ton payload that dwarfs competitors’ capabilities and which can transport enough cargo to build permanent structures on the moon, she said, adding that she became aware of Starship’s potential while still at NASA.

“It really enabled sustained operations and research on the south pole of the moon,” Lueders said. “It enabled us to be able to conduct ongoing operations there. This vehicle is a game changer, and really right now we’re trying to figure out what are all the different uses.”

Starbase itself is a hotbed of construction activity these days, she said, with a second orbital launch pad on tap as well as a million-square-foot factory, additional employee housing and office space all coming online, she said. The second pad is necessary for SpaceX’s goal of a faster launch cadence, while much of the engine testing is now taking place at SpaceX’s Massey test site on a former gun range west of Starbase, Lueders said.

“That test site is very critical,” she said. “What it allows us to do is keep our test operations … away from the beach. We know that it’s a pain in the butt for everybody when we have to (be) close the beach. And so we’re moving more of our testing over there so that it doesn’t impact operations that are over near the beach.”

Following her presentation, Lueders told The Brownsville Herald that the next Starship launch ideally will take place early in 2024.

“We would have love to have multiple flights next year,” she said. “It would be great if we were in the first quarter, definitely. Elon obviously would probably say the end of December, but I don’t think we’ll get there.”