SpaceX Starship Prototype Finally Nails It

SpaceX Starship Prototype Finally Nails It

On the fifth try, SpaceX’s Starship prototype finally made it not only up, but down, during a test at Boca Chica, TX.  After four landing failures, today’s flight with a modified design demonstrated that it could lift off a launch pad, rise to 10 kilometers altitude, maneuver, and return to a safe landing so close to its point of origin that these flights are referred to as “hops.”

Four previous attempts since December 2020 did the first two steps, launch and maneuver, just fine, but the landings ended in spectacular fireballs.

Not so today.  Starship prototype Serial Number 15 (SN15) settled down on its landing pad and stayed there.

SpaceX Starship prototype SN15 after landing May 5, 2021. The fire, from methane burn-off, was extinguished with water cannons.  Screengrab from SpaceX livestream.

On a previous attempt, SN10, the vehicle landed, but then fell over and exploded into flames when the landing legs collapsed after hitting the ground too hard.

SpaceX skipped testing the SN12-14 vehicles, instead waiting for this modification that has an enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture, and new design and configuration of its Raptor engines.

These prototypes have three Raptors. The operational version will have six. The engines use liquid oxygen (LOX) and liquid methane as propellant.

SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk simply tweeted that the landing was “nominal.”

Musk is developing Starship to take a million people to Mars, but, in the meantime, won a contract from NASA last month to use it to return astronauts to the Moon. The award is being protested by the two companies that lost and NASA suspended work until the Government Accountability Office makes a ruling, but SpaceX is in the driver’s seat for now.

Artist’s illustration of Starship after separating from the Super Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX
Artist’s illustration of Starship atop its Super Heavy first stage. Credit SpaceX

Starship is being funded internally by SpaceX so far.

These tests were scheduled before the contract award so the suspension should not affect them.

Starship is the second stage of a space transportation system for interplanetary flight. The first stage, Super Heavy, has not entered testing yet.

The Starship second stage combines a propulsion system with crew quarters or a cargo hold depending on what is being launched.

The complete transportation system, 120 meters (394 feet) tall and 9 meters (30 feet) in diameter, will be able to launch 100 Metric Tons (MT) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

The Starship second stage that was tested today alone is 50 meters (164 feet) tall. Super Heavy accounts for the other 70 meters (230 feet) in height.

By comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket in use today is 70 meters (230 feet) tall in its entirety (first and second stages), 3.7 meters (12 feet) in diameter, and can place 22.8 MT into LEO.  The Falcon Heavy version, which combines three Falcon 9s, can place 63.8 MT into LEO.


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