Wednesday afternoon, SpaceX successfully launched – and nearly landed – a fully assembled prototype of its new generation Starship rocket during a suborbital flight from his facility in South Texas. This is the rocket that Elon Musk hopes for soon bring humans to the moon and, possibly, to March, but Wednesday’s launch was an unmanned test flight that only lasted a few minutes. The rocket flew to an altitude of 40,000 feet – roughly the cruising altitude of a commercial airliner – and performed what Musk called a “belly flop” maneuver on the way home. Earth. The rocket made a controlled descent to the surface and straightened up a few hundred meters above the ground. But it could not slow its descent fast enough to land safely and exploded dramatically near the landing pad. While the rocket only made about a tenth of the way to space and did not survive the landing attempt, it is still a major step towards a first orbital mission and a big victory for Musk’s interplanetary ambitions.
SpaceX’s spaceship appears to have been pulled straight from the pages of a pulp science fiction novel. Its shiny silver bullet-shaped shell is a patchwork of stainless steel plates. Two triangular fins protrude from its lower half and two smaller fins near its tip. The ship is huge – 15 stages from engine to nose cone – but that’s just the top stage of an even bigger rocket called Super Heavy. This booster is a larger scale version of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and will be equipped with three times as many engines. When SpaceX pairs a Falcon Super Heavy booster and a spaceship, the entire set is almost 400 feet tall. It will only be a few feet taller than NASA’s Saturn V rocket that transported humans to the moon, which remains the largest and most powerful rocket ever flown in space.
The Super Heavy and Starship will use SpaceX’s new Raptor rocket engines, which are much more powerful than the Merlin engines the company currently uses on all of its Falcon rockets. SpaceX has only flown a Raptor engine twice, both during test flights for Starhopper, a scaled-down version of Starship that looked more like a grain silo than a rocket. Each Starhopper flight carried only one engine and propelled the vehicle a few hundred feet into the air. On Wednesday’s test flight, the Starship prototype carried three Raptor engines and it was the first time that a SpaceX rocket had flown more than one at the same time. One of the Raptor engines shut down approximately 2 minutes after the start of the flight and the second shut down shortly after. It is not known whether these engines were intentionally shut down or whether they malfunctioned during the flight. When Starship is ready to head into space, it will carry six Raptors – three optimized for atmospheric flying and three optimized for the vacuum of space – and the Super Heavy booster will be powered by 28 Raptor engines.
Raptor engines operate at extremely high pressures and managing these extraordinary operating conditions has been a challenge for SpaceX. Over the past year, the company has lost several prototypes of Starship to static fires, a type of test in which the engine is fired while the rocket is bolted to the ground. Rocket explosions – or “unexpected quick teardown” like Musk the dish– were a setback, but SpaceX technicians managed to launch new rockets at a breakneck pace. In fact, by the time the Starship prototype launched on Wednesday, there was already another one waiting behind the scenes in case this version didn’t return to Earth in one piece. Even Musk only gave it about a “1/3 chanceTo survive his first trip. “A lot of things have to go right, but that’s why we have SN9 and SN10,” Musk tweeted, referencing the next Starship prototypes to fly.