More, Better, Faster: SpaceX makes Boca Chica top priority

When SpaceX’s Starship Mk1 prototype blew up eight days before Thanksgiving last year it was pretty loud, though not as loud as the explosion of the Starship SN4 prototype on the test stand May 29.

That’s according to Celia Johnson, one of a handful of original property owners still residing at Boca Chica Villa, 1.6 miles west of the SpaceX launch/test pad, despite the company’s efforts to buy them out. She’s still at Boca Chica partly because it’s the perfect place to hunker down during the pandemic. Johnson is worried about contracting COVID-19 because her age, combined with severe asthma, put her at high risk of dying from the virus. She even stopped wintering in Michigan, her primary residence, after winding up unconscious in the hospital every year because of asthma.

“I couldn’t ask for a better place to be,” Johnson said.

Even if it means putting up with the occasional explosion, or in the case of Mk1, the first full-size Starship prototype, an extremely noisy rupture. Mk1 met its dramatic end during a “to the max” pressurization test, the outcome of which wasn’t entirely unexpected and which broke one of Johnson’s kitchen windows.

SN4’s demise, on the other hand, was the result of a real explosion that wasn’t the fault of the rocket but rather a leaky “quick disconnect” fuel coupling, part of the ground support equipment, according to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The explosion occurred minutes after the last of a series of successful static-fire engine tests. It didn’t break any of her windows, but Johnson said it was the loudest thing she’s ever heard.

She didn’t even know SpaceX was testing that day until a sheriff’s deputy drove through the neighborhood with siren blaring, a warning to residents that a test is imminent and they have 10 minutes to get outside in case an “overpressure event” caused by a malfunction blows in their windows. Johnson opts to hole up in her “bunker” — her bedroom, which has boards over the window. She was there with her schnauzer, Flash, watching LabPadre’s live stream of the SN4 test on her phone that Friday afternoon when the rocket underwent what SpaceX engineers jokingly refer to as an RUD — Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly.

“It was so loud,” Johnson said. “My dog tried to jump out of the bed, but I caught him. I kept telling him, ‘Flash, can you hear me?’ I don’t know. I was a little bit deaf. It didn’t last long. Maybe a half hour, 45 minutes or so. And then I was little stressed too about it, because I think I suffered a little panicky attack or something like that, because of the deafening or I don’t know why.”

Due to the video signal delay, the live stream showed SN4 still in one piece even as it disappeared in a massive fireball in real time just down the road.

“That’s what’s so weird,” Johnson said. “Because the explosion happened and I’m looking at LabPadre through my phone and the rocket looks intact, and I said, ‘What the heck?’ And then all of a sudden I see it explode, but it had already exploded.”

SpaceX, which became the world’s first private company to launch astronauts into space on May 30 (NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley are safely aboard the International Space Station after a 19-hour trip in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule), is making Starship development at Boca Chica its main priority aside from getting the astronauts home safely when the time comes, according to Musk. CNBC reported on June 7 that Musk sent a company-wide email to employees on June 6 urging them to “dramatically and immediately” step up the pace of Starship development, which is already going around the clock at Boca Chica.

“Please consider the top SpaceX priority (apart from anything that could reduce Dragon return risk) to be Starship,” Musk wrote, encouraging the company’s employees to spend “significant time” at Boca Chica to support the Starship program, according to CNBC.

Musk intends for the reusable spacecraft to carry humans to the Moon and Mars as soon as possible. SN4 is only the latest in a series of Starship prototypes to be destroyed during testing, and while such incidents are frequently characterized in the media as major setbacks, they are not abnormal in the colorful history of cutting-edge aerospace development and can be considered part of the learning process.

Even before the SN4 incident, SpaceX’s Boca Chica team was cueing up the next two prototypes in the series, SN5 and SN6. A new test stand has been built and installed at the pad to replace the one destroyed on May 29, and testing of SN5 could begin as early as Wednesday. Cameron County has announced the closure of Boca Chica Beach and S.H. 4 from F.M. 1419 to the beach from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday, with June 11-12 as alternate dates from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., for rocket testing. The Federal Aviation Administration on May 28 granted SpaceX a two-year license to conduct suborbital Starship flight tests at Boca Chica.

Meanwhile, Johnson sees a steady trickle of old neighbors taking the company’s money and pulling up stakes, replaced by Tesla-driving SpaceX employees moving in (Musk also founded and heads the Tesla car company). But until the pandemic is over or a cure or vaccine has been found, and until SpaceX makes her a better offer than what they’ve done so far — three times the appraised value of her home, which Johnson says is based on an erroneously low appraisal — she’s staying put.

What with the pandemic on one side and SpaceX on the other, Johnson said she feels like she’s “between a rock and a hard place,” though between a rocket and a hard place may be more apt.

“At my age, where am I going to go? I don’t want to get rich off of SpaceX or Elon or anybody,” she said. “I’ve never been rich. I don’t care. But I do want enough money to buy a house like I have right now, in an area that I’m a mile away from the ocean like I am right now.”