Elon Musk has made no secret of his ambitions for Mars. He has said that he would like to start sending his Starship spacecraft to Mars as early as 2024 with the possibility of sending crews as early as 2026. However, like many of Musk’s ambitious deadlines, that is likely to slip with the loss of the SN8 and SN9 prototypes upon landing, the SN10 prototype shortly after landing, and now the loss of SN11 shortly before landing earlier this morning.
The SN11 prototype flew to an altitude of six miles in a high-altitude test, and then attempted a landing back at the same launchpad. The explosion happened quickly enough that it was not immediately clear whether it happened upon landing or shortly before actually touching ground.
The test involved a brief hover at an altitude of 33,000 feet. Then it came down using a new landing method that involves the rocket tilting on its side during part of the descent before returning to a vertical position and reigniting its engines. A camera cut out just before the engines were scheduled to relight, so there was no visual confirmation that all three of the engines successfully did their jobs.
The SpaceX test facility at Boca Chica, Texas, was foggy enough this morning to make the rocket difficult to see, although some live feeds caught images of falling debris. SN11 may have already been in pieces when it returned to the launchpad.
“At least the crater is in the right place!” Elon Musk said in a tweet.
The pattern of Starship prototype failures does seem to indicate that SpaceX engineers should work on the engines. An engine failing to reignite was a factor in the explosions of SN8 and SN9. The loss of SN10 might have been the result of the remaining propellant escaping through the engines.
Musk has indicated that SpaceX is already constructing at least one prototype for the Super Heavy version of Starship. The current plan has the Super Heavy acting as the first stage for the full Starship stack. If all goes as planned (and SpaceX doesn’t bankrupt itself through endless building and then blowing up of prototypes), the Super Heavy will be capable of heaving Starship into orbit. The rocket being tested with the SN series of prototypes will serve as the second stage.
SpaceX plans to use the Starship-Super Heavy system for a variety of purposes ranging from suborbital point-to-point travel on Earth to sending astronauts to the Moon. Eventually, Musk plans to build a fleet of 1,000 Starships to establish a permanent base on Mars. The development of reusable interplanetary rockets like Starship is expected to slash the cost of transport to other worlds by a factor of 1,000.
Not that efforts won’t have their challenges and not all of them will be the technical issues that cause rockets to blow up. The FAA recently called a brief halt to Starship prototype tests to conduct a safety review after the explosion of SN8. At the time, Elon Musk criticized the move as possible regulatory overreach by an agency that’s more accustomed to regulating air travel. No one was injured by any of the recent prototype failures and firetrucks had been seen in action just before the loss of SN10.
Environmental concerns may also be a factor, considering that a leaked document from the FAA indicates that SpaceX may have plans to drill for natural gas and build gas-fired power plants in Boca Chica. The obligatory environmental reviews could slow down SpaceX’s plans.
Despite the failures, Elon Musk remains optimistic that SpaceX could start sending Starships to Mars by 2030 for sure, although some of his employees have been heard to say that he can be grumpy the day after a rocket explosion. He still might surprise us all and pull it off if only SpaceX’s engineers can solve the issues that have been causing Starship prototypes to blow up.