SpaceX successfully landed a high-altitude Starship prototype rocket for the first time on Wednesday. This marks the achievement of overcoming a key challenge in Elon Musk’s whirlwind quest to build a fully reusable Mars rocket. SpaceX CEO, Musk, has said the SN15 rocket contained “hundreds of design improvements” over past high-altitude prototypes, which were all destroyed during explosive landing attempts.
At 6:24 PM ET from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas facilities, Starship SN15 lifted off, soaring more than 6 miles in the sky to test in-flight manoeuvres. SN15’s three Raptor engines gradually shut down to begin a horizontal free-fall back to Earth as it reached peak altitude. Nearing land, two engines reignited to execute a complex “landing flip manoeuvre,” where the rocket reorients/repositions itself vertically ahead of a soft touchdown.
Not too far from its launchpad, the rocket deployed a set of tiny legs and landed firmly on a concrete pad, becoming the first surviving Starship prototype. A small fire appeared near the base of the rocket after landing — “not unusual with the methane fuel that we’re carrying,” SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said on the live stream — and was extinguished a few minutes later, according to The Verge.
“Starship landing nominal!” Musk tweeted about seven minutes after SN15’s touchdown, declaring success.
Four previous attempts were made, all four high-altitude prototypes exploded upon attempting to land — either moments after, exactly on, or shortly before the touchdown.
SpaceX’s Starship system is designed in such a way that its purpose is to send humans and up to 100 tons of cargo to the Moon and Mars. The SN15, a 16-story-tall high-altitude prototype, represents just the top half of Starship, while the bottom half will be a towering “super-heavy” booster that will help launch Starship’s top half before returning to land.
The success at the American aerospace manufacturer’s so-called “Starbase” facilities in Texas on Wednesday follows a strong signal of approval from NASA, which a few weeks ago awarded Musk’s space company $2.9 billion to build a lunar lander as part of the mission to send humans to the Moon by 2024. Two other companies in the running to bag the contract were Blue Origin and Dynetics.
SpaceX’s award shocked many in the space industry who expected NASA to pick two companies. Blue Origin, which led a group of established space contractors including Lockheed Martin, and Dynetics protested NASA’s decision, saying two companies should have been picked as expected and alleging the agency’s evaluation unfairly favoured Starship.
Those protests, at the moment, have put a hold on SpaceX’s ability to use the $2.9 billion in funds. Still, the development of Starship has continued regardless as it was supported largely by private funding and Musk’s wealth.
A BUSY TWO WEEKS FOR SPACEX
“The past two weeks have been full of accomplishments by the SpaceX team,” Insprucker said after SN15’s clean touchdown, mentioning SpaceX’s launch of astronauts on its used Crew Dragon capsule last month and the first nighttime splashdown of a US astronaut capsule in 52 years.
According to The Verge, “for SpaceX and NASA’s two Moon missions, Starship will need to demonstrate it can refuel itself in orbit before flying to the lunar surface — two feats never before accomplished by a private company.” Starship’s lunar version also has its work cut out as it will need to prove it can use an entirely different set of thrusters to ease itself down on the Moon’s surface.