SpaceX Delays SN9 High Altitude Test for Engine Swap

Elon Musk has announced that SpaceX plans to swap out two engines in the Starship prototype rocket model SN9. This will cause a delay in a high altitude test that was slated to occur over the weekend. The test could now occur as early as Monday.

SpaceX conducted three “static fire” tests of SN9’s rocket engines, which may have caused damage to the two engines in question. Musk has indicated that it was “probably wise” to conduct another static fire test once the engines have been replaced.

When the SN9 high altitude test does occur, it is likely to have a profile similar to SN8’s last test flight, which reached an altitude of 12.5 kilometers on December 9. SN8’s test flight featured a new “bellyflop” maneuver for descent. Although the test ended with the fiery loss of SN8, engineers say that they got enough data to improve on the previous Starship prototype’s performance.

The high altitude testing is part of development for the Starship rocket and its “big brother,” the Super Heavy rocket. They were previously known as the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR, though SpaceX has apparently changed the name because the acronym was inviting the jokes.

These rockets are meant for travel to other worlds, such as the Moon and Mars. Elon Musk has made no secret of his ambition of providing transportation for a settlement on Mars that could reach a population of one million people. At events like 2020’s virtual International Mars Society Conference, he has indicated that he considers making humanity an interplanetary species is critical for its survival.

“This is really about eliminating existential risk for civilization as a whole. … Being confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event is depressing. We need things that make you want to get out of bed in the morning,” he told the audience watching the livestreamed video on the Mars Society’s YouTube channel.

Reacting to Elon Musk’s appearance, Mars Society president Robert Zubrin said of Musk’s efforts, “SpaceX is taking on the biggest single challenge, which is the transportation system. There’s all sorts of other systems that are going to be needed.”

In the wake of his brief stint as the world’s wealthiest person, a title that has since been reclaimed by Amazon CEO and aerospace rival Jeff Bezos, he has also reiterated his desire to use his fortune to the benefit of humanity. A request for feedback drew the expected array of suggestions, ranging from donations to animal shelters and organizations that help low-income families to funding medical research.

Despite the suggestions in replies to his tweet, he remains convinced that sending people to Mars on rockets like Starship and the Super Heavy is one of the best ways to help humanity, besides his frequently stated desire to make gasoline-powered cars obsolete with the widespread adoption of electric vehicles like Tesla’s. He is willing to risk things occasionally blowing up while his rockets are still in development. From a PR standpoint, the dramatic loss of a test model while Starship is still in the prototype phase are preferable to losing an entire crew in a Challenger Disaster-like mishap.

Even so, the engineering team may be playing it safe with prototypes that are not cheap. The replacement of the two engines reduces the risk that SpaceX will lose SN9 in the upcoming high altitude test.