SpaceX Scores Another Success for Starship Just Days After Crew Dragon’s Safe Return

SpaceX Scores Another Success for Starship Just Days After Crew Dragon’s Safe Return

Just two days after ushering in an era of commercial human orbital spaceflight with the splashdown of Crew Dragon, SpaceX scored another success.  A brief “hop” of a prototype of its Starship vehicle — following aborts yesterday and earlier today — is one more step towards Elon Musk’s goal of building a huge rocket to take people to the Moon and Mars.

SpaceX did not provide any live coverage of the test, but at least three amateur groups had their own cameras fixed on SpaceX’s tank farm at Boca Chica, TX (near Brownsville) waiting for something to happen. Just before 8:00 pm ET, it did. (@NASAspaceflight), which is not a NASA site, LabPadre (@LabPadre) and Everyday Astronaut (@erdayastronaut) had video feeds from various angles that they tweeted in addition to their live feeds.

SpaceX later tweeted its own drone’s-eye video of liftoff and flight, with views of the landing from inside the skirt surrounding the bottom of the vehicle, showing the single Raptor engine firing and landing legs deploying.

NASA Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted his congratulations.

The vehicle, that without its nose cone resembles a grain silo, is powered by a methane-LOX Raptor engine built by SpaceX. The test was to demonstrate it could lift off its test stand, rise to 150 meters, and translate over to its landing pad about 150 meters away.  SpaceX has not revealed if it met all its objectives, but it was standing at the end.

The flight is another step forward after last year’s “Starhopper” tests, but well behind Musk’s optimistic assessment last September that a Starship Mk1 prototype with three Raptor engines would fly to 20 kilometers altitude by the end of 2019.

Starhopper, dubbed a flying water tower, was much smaller than the full-scale model that flew today, which is 30 meters tall and carried a mass simulator of about 20 metric tons according to commentators on the video feeds.

Mockup of SpaceX’s Starship. Credit: Elon Musk tweet, September 28, 2019.

Musk’s goal is a two-stage vehicle that will make humanity a multi-planet species. Starship is the second stage that provides propulsion and serves as crew quarters. The first stage is called Super Heavy.  Designs are evolving, but during an event at Boca Chica last September, Musk said Super Heavy needs either 24 or 31 Raptor engines and Starship needs six.

Musk himself jokes about his poor record in estimating how long it takes to develop rockets and spacecraft, but the test today is a step forward, even if not of the magnitude he hoped a year ago.  A number of testing anomalies, including explosions, have slowed the program and this test alone was aborted last night and again earlier today because of technical issues. It is “SN-5,” Serial Number 5, following predecessors that failed either accidentally or intentionally as part of testing.

Nonetheless, SN-5 did succeed today, hours after a NASA press conference with the two astronauts who just returned from the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley sang the praises of SpaceX for building such a safe and comfortable spacecraft and training them so effectively.

SpaceX plans to fly not only professional astronauts for NASA on Crew Dragon, but “space tourists.” It already has deals with two companies, Axiom Space and Space Adventures, to do that as early as the end of next year. Asked if he thought Crew Dragon was sufficiently mature for non-professional astronauts, Behnken said he thought it was going to “take a few flights before we can consider this vehicle completely tested.”

The next flight, Crew-1, will use a different spacecraft and is expected in September, but Crew Dragon spacecraft are reusable. The next flight of this specific spacecraft is set for next spring. The Crew-2 mission will be piloted by Behnken’s wife, NASA astronaut Megan McArthur.

Musk’s ambitions go far beyond Earth orbit, though. He already has his first paying customer to fly Starship around the Moon in 2023. He’s competing to win a NASA contract to use Starship to land astronauts on the lunar surface in 2024. But his ultimate goal is sending millions of people to settle on Mars and make humanity a multi-planet species lest a natural or human-made catastrophe destroy this world.


This article has been updated.

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