SpaceX pulled it off Wednesday afternoon, finally launching and landing a full-size Starship prototype without an explosion of any sort.
The SN15 prototype blasted off from the company’s Boca Chica launch site at 5:24 p.m. and quickly pierced the low overcast before flying to approximately 33,000 feet, cutting its three Raptor engines one at a time and performing a successful “belly flop” descent.
A single engine was reignited for the landing sequence and the SN15 came down at the correct speed for a soft landing. The flight lasted 6 minutes and 8 seconds.
It was the fifth high-altitude flight of a Starship prototype. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk had said SN15 contained hundreds of design improvements after the mid-air explosion of the SN11 near the end of an otherwise successful flight on March 30. The SN10 likewise flew successfully on March 3 but came in too fast on landing, damaging the craft, which exploded on the landing pad several minutes after the flight’s end. The SN9 flew and descended fine on Feb. 2 but also came in too fast, destroying the test vehicle on impact.
“Starship landing nominal!” Musk tweeted shortly after Wednesday’s successful flight.
The SN15, like its full-size predecessors, with gleaming stainless steel cladding and 1950s-science-fiction-style fins, is a far cry from the stubby Starhopper, which flew to 500 feet on Aug. 27, 2019, with one Raptor engine. The homely craft, technically the first Starship prototype, which even Musk compared to a flying water tower, stands near the landing pad that SN15 truly touched down on rather than smashed into.
Not everyone is thrilled with what SpaceX is doing at Boca Chica, including environmental groups concerned about the impact on the pristine nugget of formerly undeveloped coastline, especially after the disintegration of the SN11 rained rocket parts over a wide area, including wetlands, surrounding the launch site.
Beach lovers and fishermen are likewise not happy about the frequent closures of S.H. 4 and Boca Chica Beach related to rocket testing and launches. Then there are the residents of tiny, adjacent Boca Chica Village, which has been effectively taken over by the rocket company except for a few holdouts who have so far refused SpaceX’s buyout offers.
At the same time, SN15’s successful landing Wednesday marked a major milestone in the company’s development of the spacecraft that Musk envisions carrying humans to the moon and eventually Mars for the purpose of establishing permanent bases, with the ultimate goal of penetrating further into the solar system and increasing the changes of humanity’s long-term survival.
SpaceX received a major validation of that vision when NASA awarded the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company a $2.9 billion contract to develop the Starship into the Lunar Landing System that would take U.S. astronauts to the moon’s surface for the first time since 1972. NASA suspended the contract on April 30, though, so that the General Accounting Office can formally weight protests by the other two companies vying for the moon contract, Blue Origin and Dynetics.
Whatever happens there, SN16 is being assembled in the Starship production complex just up S.H. 4 from the launch site. It wasn’t clear as of press time whether a county-ordered May 6 closure of the beach and highway near SpaceX from noon to 8 p.m. would still be in force today after Wednesday’s SN15 launch.