SpaceX has finally nailed the launch and landing of a full-sized Starship prototype. It had previously lost the prototypes SN8, SN9, SN10, and SN11 in explosive events that the rocket industry officially calls rapid unscheduled disassemblies during or shortly after landing. The company’s engineers used data from the previous high-altitude tests to make what CEO Elon Musk described as “hundreds of major upgrades” to structures, avionics, software, and engine systems in the SN15, which was used for today’s test.
The SN12, SN13, and SN14 prototypes had never been fully assembled. SpaceX also has approval from the FAA to fly the already-complete SN16 and SN17 in upcoming high-altitude tests.
Along with testing the viability of the Starship rocket, SpaceX has been testing a new descent profile that has the rocket briefly descending in a horizontal position that has been referred to as a “bellyflop” maneuver. The data from previous tests indicate that flaws in the array of three Raptor engines were a major factor in the losses of SN15’s predecessors.
This most recent test of a Starship prototype took SN15 to an altitude of about 6.2 miles (10 kilometers). It briefly hovered on a single engine before returning to Earth and used only two of its engines to slow down enough for a softer landing. Now that SpaceX has an intact Starship prototype that has successfully gone through a high-altitude test and returned intact, its engineers can analyze the rocket and especially its engine system for any remaining flaws and especially potential clues that could help pin down the exact cause of the previous explosions.
“The past few weeks have been full of accomplishments by the SpaceX team. An outstanding period as we work to enable the future of human spaceflight,” said SpaceX engineer John Insprucker during live coverage of the SN15 launch and landing.
Early Sunday morning, the SpaceX Crew Dragon carrying the four Crew-1 astronauts splashed down in the Gulf of Mexico to successfully conclude the first operational mission of NASA’s Commercial Crew program. This mission spent 167 days in space as part of a busy International Space Station rotation that included the first move of a privately owned spacecraft from one port to another.
Elon Musk has also indicated that demand for the Starlink satellite Internet service is strong with 500,000 customers already signed up as SpaceX sent another 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. Such demand may have inspired SpaceX president Glynn Shotwell’s comments that Starlink could help to fund Musk’s ambitions for Mars. Elon Musk is also slated to host the late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live on May 8.
Once the Starship rocket becomes fully operational, SpaceX intends to use it for a variety of purposes ranging from point-to-point suborbital flights on Earth to interplanetary travel. The settlement of Mars is top on Elon Musk’s list of things to do with the Starship rocket. Musk’s characteristically ambitious current timeline for journeys to Mars include the possibility of sending the first crewed missions to the Red Planet by 2026, which many aerospace experts say is unlikely to happen despite the success of the SN15 prototype’s first high-altitude test.