Space Sunday: the ups and downs of vehicle development

SpaceX Boca Chica: A giant crane gets ready to lift Starship S20 some 90 metres into the air so it can be stacked onto Super Heavy Booster 4, Friday, August 6th. Credit: BocaChicaGal /

SpaceX has been stepping up the pace of work at its Boca Chica Starbase facility, home of the Starship and Super Heavy booster development programme, in recent weeks.

Towards the end of July, the company started transferring personnel from its headquarters in Hawthorne, California to Starbase in what was seen as a start of gearing-up for flight activities out of Boca Chica. This operation came alongside continuing construction work at Starbase and the initial testing of the prototype B3 Super Heavy booster, which included a static-fire test of three Raptor sea-level engines. Since then, the pace of developments at Boca Chica has been dramatic – particularly in the last week and a half.

Two shots of the 70-metre tall Booster 4 departing the SpaceX high bay on its way to the launch facilities. Note the fixed (non-folding) grid fins that will be used to steer operational Super Heavy boosters to back to Earth, and in the background of the picture on the left, the lower tank section of starship S20. Credit: Elon Musk

In that time, the first flight-capable Super Heavy booster was moved down to the launch facilities, whilst Starship 20 (SpaceX has dropped the “SN” designation), the vehicle that will sly with it in an attempt to reach orbit later this year, completed its major assembly, stacking the two cylindrical tank sections one atop the other an onto the vehicle’s engine skirt, and then adding the upper ring sections and nose cone.

This work included the installation of two of the news aft aerodynamic fins that are around 20% smaller than those used on earlier test vehicles, offering a reduction in mass, and the installation of six Raptor motors – 3 sea-level engines (believed to be the three motors used in the Booster 3 static fire test) and three fixed vacuum engines – although all six may have only been installed for testing purposes.

Starship 20 departs the Starbase production area en route to the launch facilities, GSE tank 3 following behind, destined for the fuel farm. Credit: BocaChicaGal /

At the same time, the massive 370-tonne launch table – the ring of hydraulic clamps, actuators, bolt mounts, etc., that will hold a booster/starship combination securely on the launch pad, was hoisted up on to the ring of the launch platform’s legs and installed. This paved the way for the 70-metre tall, 9-metre wide Booster 4, complete with a contingent of 29 Raptor motors – 20 fixed in a ring around the rocket’s circumference, and 9 centre motors that can be gimballed to provide directional thrust – to be hoisted up onto the launch platform and secured into the launch table.

Then, on Thursday, August 5th, in a move that almost caught people off-guard, SpaceX proceeded to roll-out Starship 20 from the production site and transport it to the launch facilities.

The base of Booster 4 showing the central cluster of 9 Raptor engines and the outer ring of 20. Credit: SpaceX

This prompted a lot of speculation amongst starship fans that the launch could be coming in days – something that just wasn’t going to be the case. The fact that the vehicle lacked a full complement of heat shield tiles, the launch facilities aren’t complete, nor is the consumable feed feed, and so on, all make it clear the system is still months from any launch. Plus, the FAA environment assessment hasn’t been completed, so SpaceX don’t have federal clearance to attempt an orbital launch.

Apparently, there had been plans to use cranes to perform a “test stacking” of S20 in top of B4, but these were scrapped for the day due strong wind gusts. Instead, attention turned to mounting the aforementioned missing heat shield tiles to S20.

The Starbase orbital facilities: to the top right: the orbital launch platform and support tower with Booster 4 and Starship S20 waiting to be lifted. Top lift, , the tank farm with the newly-delivered GSE 3 tank awaiting its turn to be lifted into place. Credit: RGV Aerial Photography
However, on Friday, August 6th, S20 was raised some 95 metres into the air and then gently lowered onto the reinforced interconnect at the top of the Super Heavy. In doing so, the two vehicles became the largest launch system ever raised – 120 metres tall from engine bells to tip of the nose cone (that’s around 10ft shy of 400 ft). With the launch table taken into account, the stack of vehicles rose some 140 metres above the ground.

Work on the stack then paused while, close by, GSE tank 3 was also hoisted aloft and moved into position on its mounting ring at the tank farm, where it will later be sheathed by a grey cryogenic cooling sleeve. With this work done, the massive “Frankencrane” that  has been assembling the launch support tower, once more lifted S20 aloft and then lowered it back onto its autonomous transport so it could be rolled back to the production facilities to undergo further work.

Starliner: No Go for Launch

The long-awaited launch of the Boeing CST-100 Starliner vehicle on its uncrewed second Orbital Flight Test (OFT-2) has been indefinitely delayed n a further blow to the troubled programme.

Scheduled to lift-off on Tuesday, August 3rd, the launch was scrubbed after the Boeing launch team received warning of “unexpected valve position indications” within the capsule’s propulsion system. Initially, it had been hoped that a further attempt could be made on Wednesday, August 4th. However, Further checks on the vehicle, Boeing announced a suspension of all launch attempts, and that the vehicle would be rolled back to its service structure to allow further checks to be made on the vehicle.

The OFT-2 Starliner capsule on its Atlas 5 booster prior to the mission being indefinitely postponed. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

Designed to partner the SpaceX Crew Dragon – already operational – in ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS), Starliner first flew on an uncrewed mission in December 2019 in what was supposed to be a final check-out prior to commencing crewed operations. However shortly after the vehicle reached orbit it suffered a software glitch that caused repeated incorrect firings of its manoeuvring motors, leaving it with insufficient fuel to make a rendezvous and docking with the ISS. Hence the need for the OFT-2 flight.

That this has now been postponed following 18 months of reviews and changes to both systems on the vehicle and the procedures used in readying it for flight, is nothing short of embarrassing for Boeing and NASA alike – the CST-100 contract being the most expensive in the Commercial Crew Programme.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: the ups and downs of vehicle development”

Landscapes at Kultivate Select in Second Life

Kultivate Select Gallery – August 2021

Officially opening at 12:00 noon on Sunday, August 8th, 2021, is the latest Kultivate Select ensemble exhibition, which takes place in the garden space of the Select Gallery.

The theme for the exhibition is Landscapes, and it features a number of artists who will be familiar to many, especially those who enjoy exhibitions at Kultivate’s galleries, as they are very much part of the Kultivate “family”, and one or two names that may not be so well-known, but who are equally deserving of space in the exhibition.

Those taking part comprise: aquarius27, Cutewillow Carlberg, Eucalyptus Carroll, Freedom Voix, Harmony Evergarden, Jamee Sandalwood, Johannes Huntsman, Moora McMillan, TaraAers, Vanessa Jane, Via Theas and Zia Branner.

Kultivate Select Gallery: TaraAers and Zia Branner

Set around the gallery’s grassy event space, each of the artists has an open-sided hut in which to display their art, presenting a summertime garden environment that fits the theme for the exhibition perfectly. Given the title of the event is “landscapes”, then it should come as no surprise that the majority of the pieces offered feature in-world locations, many of which will likely be instantly identified by the seasoned Second Life travellers whilst offered under a new light through the lenses of the artists.

The notable exceptions to this are Zia Branner, who presents another collection of her paintings that has something of a focus on her captivating coastal views, whilst Harmony Evergarden offers a set of reproductions of her eye-catching original watercolours. I admit that one of the latter (whilst perhaps not the intent of the artist) instantly carried me to the windswept coast of Northumberland, and the curving bay of sand that is watched over by the imposing bulk of Bamburgh Castle. Alongside of Harmony, John Huntsman offers a set from his Garden Collection which, I have to confess, held my attention as I could not determine if they were wholly original, or images from SL post-processed as paintings – or a mix of the two, such is the artistry in their presentation.

Kultivate Select Gallery: Vita Theas and Eucalyptus Carroll

The two-hour opening event will feature the music of Mimi Carpenter and Sarita Twisted, and the dress code is casual.

SLuel Details

39 Steps, war, space adventures and soccer

Seanchai Library

It’s time to highlight another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home in Nowhereville, unless otherwise indicated. Note that the schedule below may be subject to change during the week, please refer to the Seanchai Library website for the latest information through the week.

Sunday, August 8th, 13:00: Tea-Time At the Movies: The 39 Steps

Written whilst he was convalescing in a private nursing home, John Buchan’s 1915 novel The Thirty-Nine Steps tells the tale of a Europe teetering on the brink of war in 1914. In it, the  “everyday hero” Richard Hannay finds himself plunged into a world of intrigue, spies, threats to Britain’s security and murder.

Buchan’s novel was a gripping read when first published, and remains so to this day. It has all the ingredients of a classic thriller (although in Buchan’s time, they called them “shockers”): the hero-on-the-run; the seemingly insurmountable forces arrayed against him; the slow realisation by the authorities that rather than a villain, he might just be a saviour; and so on. Thus, it was, and is, the kind of story that naturally lends itself to a re-telling in film – and down the decades there have been numerous adaptations produced.

The first – and arguably most famous – of these celluloid outings came in 1935, with Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. While it actually takes very little from the novel other than the protagonist’s name (played by Robert Donat), and the idea of a man on the run whilst attempting to clear his name and solve a mystery, Hitchcock’s film was nevertheless a masterpiece in its own right. So much so that it actually became a blueprint for several of his later films – most notably, North by Northwest, a film that might also be said to pay a little homage to Buchan’s novel via the famous scene of it’s hero, George Thornhill, being chased by an aeroplane (Buchan’s original tale at one point features an aeroplane in the hunt for Hannay, although it admittedly keeps to a somewhat higher altitude!).

Such was the power of Hitchcock’s version of the novel, that it in turn became the foundation for a number of further cinematic outings. In 1959, for example, Ralph Thomas essentially took Hitchcock’s version and filmed it in colour, replacing Donat with Kenneth More in the lead role and adding or changing a few other characters and roles.

It is an adaptation of Hitchcock’s version that the tea-time team at Seanchai will be presenting, so why not slip into a disguise to avoid being recognised by any sinister spies, and join them?

Monday, August 9th 19:00: Goliath

The third and final instalment in  Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series, Goliath takes us once more to the alternative past history of Earth at the time of the First World War, and a world divided between the Darwinists- those who have evolved genetics to make animals more useful to humans – and the Clankers, who have built their society on machinery technology.

Once again we join Alek and Deryn in their adventures, this time with both of them aboard the living airship Leviathan. Unexpectedly, the ship is diverted mid-flight over Russia with orders to pick up a single large create being transported overland by a fighting bear. Once aboard the whale-ship the crew set about constructing the machine as the ship continues on its way.

Passing over Siberia, the Leviathan comes across an area of great mystery: a devastated region where the trees have been flattened to form a great series of rings, the corpse of another whale-ship lying near its centre, the beleaguered survivors needing rescue even as they are protected from out-of-control and starving fighting bears by another strange machine.

Bringing them aboard the Leviathan, the crew discover the survivors have been protected by the work of one Nikola Tesla, a scientist and inventor who may have the weapon that can bring an end to the Great War.

As the adventure continues, Deryn, still disguising herself as a boy in order to be a part of Leviathan’s crew, struggles with her feelings for Alek and whether she should reveal the truth about herself to him…

Tuesday, August 10th


Music, poetry, and stories.

19:00: Dragonfly

Willow Moonfire reads a short story from Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea sagas.

Wednesday, August 11th, 19:00 Creatures of Light and Darkness

Two gods, two houses, one quest and the eternal war between life and death. To save his kingdom, Anubis, Lord of the Dead, sends forth his servant on a mission of vengeance. At the same time, from The House of Life, Osiris sends forth his son, Horus, on the same mission to destroy utterly & forever The Prince Who Was a Thousand.

But neither of these superhuman warriors is prepared for the strange & harrowing world of mortal life. The Thing That Cries in the Night may well destroy not only their worlds, but all humankind.

With Corwyn Allen.

Thursday, August 12th

19:00 Galaxy Quest Part 2

Join Shandon Loring for a trip aboard the NSEA Protector, together with her crew (or cast, if you prefer!).

21:00: Seanchai Late Night

Contemporary Sci-F / Fantasy with Finn Zeddmore.

Friday, August 13th, 14:30: Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals

Football in Ankh-Morpork is not as we might know it. Rather than being comprised of rules and played within a recognisable ground, it is far more akin to the somewhat violent mob football of medieval Europe.

Not that this is a concern for the elderly, mostly indolent and (some might be tempted to think) somewhat inept old wizards making up the faculty staff at the city’s school of wizardry, the Unseen University. Until, that is, their very handsome annual endowment becomes subject to their playing the game themselves.

Thus, Archchancellor Mustrum Ridcully sets out a two-pronged strategy: to ensure the city’s version of football is restructured with proper (and favourable?) rules, and to put team preparations at the university in the hands of the talented candle dribbler, Mr. Nutt and his assistant, Trevor Likely, the son of the city’s most famous (if deceased – did I mention the game can be violent?) player, who are in turn supported by Glenda Sugarbean, who runs the university’s night kitchen and her assistant Juliet Stollop.

Except Mr. Nutt soon discovers he has problems of his own to deal with, and Trevor has promised his Mum he’ll never get involved in the game.  Meanwhile, Glenda has the daily responsibility of baking the Discworld’s best pies, and Juliet is about to find herself whisked towards the heights of fame as a fashion model, thus potentially leaving the team a little short on practical advice…

Join Caledonia Skytower as she presents the 37th novel in the Discworld series, and possibly one of its greatest satirical undertakings encompassing football, academia, traditions, the fashion industry, politics, love, fandom, and which mixes in more serious themes of identity, crab mentality and self-worth.