The last piece was the most exciting: Sixteen seconds before a flat Starship missile crashes into the ground, it turns its three rocket engines and straightens it. Horizontal became vertical.
The landing occurred in a cloud of flying dust, but after it had been cleared, the shiny metal cylinder stood upright. And then – most importantly – nothing happened. Eight of the nine ships out of the nine previously tested blew up, including one after eight minutes of landing (extremely difficult).
The successful landing of SN15 on May 5, after a flight at an altitude of ten kilometers, is a victory for the US space company SpaceX. The series of test flights should lead to the largest and most powerful rocket in history, capable of doing all kinds of space travel purposes, from launching satellites to the first manned landing on Mars.
Additionally, the Starship should be completely reusable, unlike most current rockets. Reuse should make launch costs so low that Starship becomes the cheapest option for nearly every launch.
Now, future space plans often get bogged down in delays and technical and financial problems, but the man behind the Starship and SpaceX is Elon Musk, who previously managed to make the Falcon 9 rocket the backbone of western space travel: cheap and reliable, with 115 successful flights. On appeal, including two manned flights to the International Space Station.
One of the keys is reuse: the first stage of the Falcon 9 returns after use, and lands on a platform in the sea or on land, for further use.
The development of the rocket landing stage, which space experts initially mocked, was very similar to the now-starship stage: by trying, in front of the world, until it succeeded.
The first Falcon 9 staircase collapsed into the sea, shattered, or capsized after landing, ending in a wildfire. Musk wrote a tweet about it, calling the test a pass, refining his design, and trying again, until he succeeded. Test, Flying, Failure, Fix, Iteration, is SpaceX’s motto: test, fly, fail, fix, iterate.
But the ambition of the Starship goes much further than the Falcon 9. The design, which is 50 meters high and nine meters wide, is only the second stage. Ultimately, it should be mounted on a 72 meter height booster, the Super Heavy, which also comes back and falls after use. The complete set, also called the spacecraft, will be over 120 meters higher than the Saturn 5 rocket for a moon landing.
Its megalomaniacal dimensions translate to a carrying capacity of over a hundred tons into low Earth orbit, similar to the Saturn V moon rocket. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. The Starship should come in various versions, including a tanker version, which will bring fuel and oxygen into space as cargo. The other Starship can refill its empty tanks, after which it can continue its journey.
Landing on Mars
Other versions planned are a payload version, which can deliver satellites into orbit, and a manned version with a wide area for astronauts. These spaceships should be able to survive back to Earth, as the spaceship is heated up by braking in the atmosphere. The first spacecraft have already been spotted with heat shield tiles. Other spacecraft versions should land on the moon and even Mars, as Musk is convinced that humanity should colonize Mars.
And while SpaceX is nowhere near that far, NASA appears to trust enough plans to announce in April that the Starship will be the spacecraft that will allow Americans to land on the moon again in the 1920s.
The next test flight has not yet been determined. SpaceX doesn’t offer much technical detail, although Elon Musk sometimes tweets some data himself (often in response to questions, amid an endless stream of obsessive jokes). In addition, the missiles are well equipped with video cameras. It’s so unique to the outside world in particular that the approach to building and testing takes place largely in public spaces. Spacecraft missiles are welded together outdoors on the launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas.
The unofficial flow of information has resulted in a small army of bloggers, YouTube and journalists who follow the Starship closely, eagerly awaiting any subsequent announcement from Elon himself. This came after two days of landing: “I may try to review SN15 soon”, chirp musk. SN15 might fly again soon.