After so many trials, SpaceX finally lands a Starship prototype rocket for the first time without any explosion afterwards and this is a big deal to the company’s ambition of eventually shuttling humanity to the moon and beyond.
According to the company’s chief Elon Musk, the rocket prototype dubbed the SN15 is said to have contained numerous changes and design improvements to help it achieve this new milestone.
Previous test flights all ended in serious explosions and failed landing after reaching high altitudes.
The testing took place at 6:24PM ET from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facilities and reached about 6 miles in the sky in order to test the in-flight maneuvers.
The system of the SN15 shut off its three Raptor engines slowly in order to commence its free-fall back to Earth when it reached peak altitude.
When it got closer to the ground, two of the engines then reignited to start the complex “landing flip maneuver” where the rocket is able to reorient and reposition itself vertically in order to achieve a soft landing.
Before the landing, the rockets was able to deploy its landing gears and then touchdown on a concrete pad not far from its launchpad which made it the first to survive the test.
A small fire appeared near the base of the rocket after landing — “not unusual with the methane fuel that we’re carrying,” SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said on the livestream — and was extinguished a few minutes later.
“Starship landing nominal!” Musk tweeted about seven minutes after SN15’s touchdown, declaring success considering the result of the previous high-altitude prototypes which all exploded upon their attempts to land.
The nearly successful SN10 exploded some moments later after a successful touchdown.
The purpose of the Starship system is to help transport humans and cargo up to 100 tons to the Moon and Mars.
The 16-story-tall high-altitude prototypes like SN15 represent just the top half of Starship. The bottom half will be a towering “super-heavy” booster that will help launch Starship’s top half before returning back to land.
The company recently won a US$2.9 billion contract from NASA to use the Starship for the space agency’s first two missions go the Moon by the year 2024.
Two other companies were in the running for the award: Blue Origin, which led a group of established space contractors including Lockheed Martin, and Dynetics.
Dynetics and Blue Origin both protested NASA’s decision to go with SpaceX instead of them and the protest is what has put the US$2.9 billion funds in hold even though the company continues to develop its Starship system using its private funds and Elon Musk’s money.
“The past two weeks have been full of accomplishments by the SpaceX team,” Insprucker said after SN15’s clean touchdown, mentioning SpaceX’s launch of astronauts on its used Crew Dragon capsule last month and the first nighttime splashdown of a US astronaut capsule in 52 years.
For the success of the Moon missions, Starship will need to be able to demonstrate it can refuel itself in orbit before commencing on its long journey to the Moon.
The lunar version of Starship will also need to prove it can use an entirely different set of thrusters to ease itself down on the dusty surface of the Moon.
Elon Musk is an optimist about human colonizing the red planet Mars with the help of the Starship space vehicle.