Cosmic Space

Starship survives its landing for the first time

SpaceX’s Starship prototype super-rocket stuck the landing today after a 10-kilometer-high test flight. And this time, it didn’t blow up.

The six-minute flight at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, marked the first time in five tries that one of SpaceX’s 160-foot-tall prototypes survived a complete cycle of launch and landing.

The third attempt came close in March, but in that case, the rocket erupted in a fireball minutes after it landed.

No such setback occurred this time around. Propelled by three of SpaceX’s methane-fueled Raptor engines, the Starship SN15 prototype rose into a cloudy sky, hovered at an altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) as planned, and then flipped into a horizontal attitude in order to increase drag and reduce its speed as it descended.

Moments before reaching the ground, Starship re-ignited two of its engines, righted itself and landed on its feet. When the smoke cleared, the rocket stood tall on its landing pad, with flames licking at its side.

“The Starship has landed,” SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker declared. He said the post-landing fire was “not unusual with the methane fuel that we’re carrying, as we continue to work on the test vehicle design.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a three-word reaction to Starship’s successful flight: “Starship landing nominal!”

Musk has a lot riding on SpaceX’s multibillion-dollar Starship development effort. He envisions using the spaceship and its yet-to-be-tested Super Heavy booster to deliver whole fleets of satellites to orbit, take on point-to-point trips between earthly destinations, and send astronauts as well as future settlers to the moon and Mars.

Last month, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to work on a variant of Starship that could be used as a lunar lander. The contract was put on hold due to protests from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and other competitors, but today’s test shows that SpaceX is rapidly moving forward on the Starship front despite NASA’s holdup.

Starship orbital flights and Super Heavy flight tests could begin later this year, and Musk says the system could be ready for flights to the moon in the 2023-2024 time frame, and flights to Mars soon afterward.

Sometimes Musk’s timelines may be more aspirational than actual, but you can’t fault him for his stick-to-it-iveness. He said as much when I interviewed him way back in 2010.

“People should know that SpaceX is around for the long haul,” Musk said at the time. “If the first launch goes well, that’s great, we’ll go on to the second launch. And if the first launch doesn’t go well, we’ll still go on to the second launch. … People should take a look at my track record and realize that I always come through in the end. It may take more time than I expected, but I’ll always come through.”

Musk and his team at SpaceX are enjoying a remarkable string of coming through: In addition to executing today’s successful Starship test and winning NASA’s Starship lunar lander contract, SpaceX has been in on the successful launch of one crew to the International Space Station and the successful return of another during the past month.

The company has also launched 120 of its Starlink satellites over the past week, and is due to send 60 more to low Earth orbit next week. In other Starlink news, the Federal Communications Commission has cleared SpaceX to use a more advantageous orbit for future satellites, and SpaceX claims that more than half a million people have expressed interest in getting Starlink internet service when it becomes available.

All this should cast Musk in a positive light when he hosts “Saturday Night Live” this weekend, and some of that positivity could even rub off on Tesla, Musk’s other major business interest. The bookies are betting on it.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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