SpaceX has lost the prototype for its Starship rocket designated SN8 in a test on December 9. The launch appeared largely nominal until the end of its attempted landing, in which it exploded upon touching ground.
Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 9, 2020
A Mostly Successful Test
The test had been auto-aborted by a faulty Raptor rocket on December 8, which led to the flight being rescheduled for December 9. The engineers had thought that they had the issue sorted.
Despite some observers saying that the test was a failure due to the explosion, it appeared to be mostly successful and reached its target altitude of about 12.5 kilometers despite losing two of its three engines during ascent. The testing team said that it got “all the data we need” during the test.
This was the most ambitious test of the Starship rocket yet and even the usually optimistic Elon Musk gave it only a one in three chance of going off perfectly. Previous test launches were primarily tests of components of the planned Starship design that reached a maximum altitude of 150 meters. This was the first nearly-complete mockup test of Starship that included the nose cone and fins.
SpaceX will likely conduct analysis of the wreckage to see if it can pick up clues as to why the rocket failed to slow down enough for a safe landing. Some of it might have been the laws of physics, as the rocket did go through a horizontal free-fall for a few minutes while descending and the remaining rocket might not have been powerful enough to slow it down.
The good part is that SpaceX still has two similar Starship prototypes, SN9 and SN10, which will likely go through similar tests as the company again attempts to master landings with a new type of rocket. SpaceX has experienced similar difficulties with early versions of the Falcon 9 rocket.
Ambitious Plans for Starship
SpaceX likely has a few mishaps like the failed landing built into its testing timeline despite Elon Musk’s ambitious timeline that could see uncrewed versions of Starship launching for the planet Mars in as little as three years.
This seems to indicate that Musk’s initial plans for Mars could be more or less in line with Mars Society founder Dr. Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan, which would land the necessary supporting hardware such as a habitat and a return vehicle on Mars over the course of about a decade before sending actual crews. The Mars Direct timeline would allow for plenty of hardware tests before sending people.
If Musk’s timeline is accurate, Starship could be making point-to-point flights on Earth as early as 2022 and making trips to the Moon in 2023. That would put it in line to meet NASA’s goal of landing crews on the Moon by 2024. Starship is also in the running for crewed lunar landing missions for NASA’s Artemis program.
Like most of Musk’s timelines, it could slip if there are difficulties greater than the occasional exploding prototype. However, finding paying customers for flights on Starship and the Crew Dragon is unlikely to become one of those difficulties. If the next White House administration cancels the Artemis program, SpaceX could simply turn to private customers like Japanese fashion mogul Yusaku Maezawa, who has expressed interest in being a paying passenger on a Crew Dragon on a trip around the Moon, and maybe taking a few artists with him.
It may also be possible that billionaires who are looking for a good legacy could help fund the first few settlements on the Moon and Mars. Elon Musk is currently the second richest person on Earth; the first is Jeff Bezos, who owns competing aerospace company Blue Origin. (Commenters did make the unoriginal joke, “Jeff who?” in the NASASpaceflight YouTube channel’s live chat.)
Others may decide to pay for Starship flights to send everything that’s needed for a rudimentary settlement. Musk does seem mostly interested in solving the transportation system, which Dr. Zubrin called one big challenge among many for future Mars settlements:
“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.”
Although the loss of the SN8 prototype is likely to be a disappointed for engineers who hoped to get more test flights out of it, they did get enough data out of it to perhaps make adjustments for future test flights with SN9 and SN10.