Starship Makes a Big Time Hop, But a RUD At the End

Starship Makes a Big Time Hop, But a RUD At the End

SpaceX tested a Starship prototype today, setting a new altitude record and demonstrating complex aerial maneuvers that almost led to a successful landing back on Earth. The fireball at the end was unplanned, but SpaceX was exuberant about how well the test went overall and is ready for the next.

SpaceX is building a two-stage rocket to take people and cargo to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. The first stage, Super Heavy, is still being built. The second stage, Starship, looking either futuristic or reminiscent of Flash Gordon’s rocket of the 1930s, is also crew quarters or a cargo module. Both stages are powered by LOX/methane Raptor engines.

The company has been testing prototypes using one Raptor engine making “hops” at its Boca Chica, TX test facility, near Brownsville, for more than a year. The vehicle lifts off, translates horizontally for a few meters, and lands on an adjacent pad. Until today, the highest altitude reached was 150 meters.

Each test vehicle is numbered with an SN prefix, for Serial Number. Today’s was SN8.

This test used a vehicle with three Raptor engines and aimed for an altitude of 12.5 kilometers. Scrubbed at T-1 second yesterday, and delayed during a first attempt today, it finally took place at 5:45 pm ET.

SpaceX provided live coverage of the 6 minute 42 second flight, but no details on exactly what was supposed to happen.  As thousands of viewers watched the livestream, it was evident when one engine and then another cut out, but not whether that was the flight plan.  The vehicle then flipped over to orient itself into horizontal flight and then flipped again to the vertical as it prepared to land.

That is the part that did not go so well. Instead of settling down on the landing pad as has become routine with Falcon 9 rockets, the vehicle slammed into the ground and exploded in a glorious fireball — jokingly called a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly (RUD) — as shown in this SpaceX video., a commercial website, had its own personnel near the test site with cameras showing views from different angles (beginning at about 10:09:11 in the video) and offering enthusiastic commentary.

SpaceX had stressed all along that tests are tests and it did not expect to achieve all its goals on this first flight with three Raptor engines. Company founder and CEO Elon Musk give it a one-third chance.  His tweets after the flight conveyed his delight at how well the test went, despite the ending.

SpaceX tweeted a video snip of the flip maneuver at the end looking up from the landing pad on the ground.

The message at the end was they are now ready for SN9, the next test.

SpaceX did not specify what altitude SN8 reached.

Musk says Starship can land anywhere in the solar system and it is one of three competitors for NASA’s Human Landing Systems (HLS) contracts for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. The others are a National Team led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Dynetics. All are under 10-month design contracts that expire in February 2021.

Bezos posted congratulations to SpaceX on Instagram today.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed at a meeting of the National Space Council today that the agency still plans to choose two of the three companies to proceed to the next phase of development in February, although the future of the Artemis program is contingent on what the incoming Biden Administration plans to do.

The policy of returning astronauts to the Moon has bipartisan support in Congress, but neither the House nor the Senate Appropriations Committee provided the $3.4 billion requested by NASA in FY2021 for HLS. The House approved $628 million and the Senate committee recommended $1 billion in their respective versions of the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill. Bridenstine and OMB Director Russell Vought said at the Space Council meeting that they are in the middle of hard-fought negotiations with Congress trying to get the full amount in the final bill.  Clearly that’s a tall order.

Whatever happens with NASA’s program, Musk is committed to sending people to Mars and insists a first flight could come as soon as 2026 although he also says there will be many uncrewed flights before people fly on Starship.  He did sign a contract with Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa for a flight around the Moon in 2023, but not landing.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.