SpaceX Starship prototype soars 6 miles up, then lands upright

Fifth time’s the charm! After four explosive attempts at high-altitude test flights for its Starship prototype, SpaceX has now successfully launched and landed its most recent Starship prototype, Serial Number 15 or SN15. The launch took place late in the day on May 5, 2021, at SpaceX’s South Texas facility. Starship soared about 6 miles (10 km) upwards and then returned to Earth, landing upright. SpaceX calls Starship a “fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the moon, Mars and beyond.” NASA has chosen this system as the moon lander for its crewed Artemis program, intended to carry the first man since the 1970s, and first woman ever, to the moon in this decade.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted after the landing:

Starship landing nominal!

Nominal is space jargon, meaning that a launch or other space activity has gone according to plan.

The prototype underwent a series of tests last week. The high-altitude test flight was then scheduled toward the end of last week (April 30), but it was delayed several times. Now the high-altitude test has been accomplished. The final system will be paired with a giant SpaceX rocket booster known as Super Heavy.

SN15 was the fifth Starship prototype to attempt this upward flight in less than five months. The four before it – SN8 through SN11 – all flew well until the very end, when each exploded in a dramatic show of fire. See the amazing video comparison at the end of this post. SN10 landed in one piece, but blew up on the landing pad about eight minutes later. SN11’s launch took place about a month ago on March 30, soaring to its maximum altitude as planned, then exploding upon landing due to a “plumbing problem,” SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk announced a week later. Essentially, there was too much methane in the combustion chamber and the pressure was therefore too high.

The video below shows the awesome maneuverability and the explosive fates of some earlier Starship test flights, over the past few months. It was posted by IssueKitchen on YouTube, who commented:

Elon Musk will never give up.

Large silver rocket falling at a crooked angle, and bursting into an orange ball of flames.
Starship prototype rocket SN9 exploded on impact after a high-altitude test flight on February 2, 2021. Image via SpaceX/ CNBC.

The newest prototype, SN15, was equipped with many “adjustments,” to keep it from exploding. SpaceX has built a reputation for persevering through failure, and it has the funds and resources to continue building prototypes and trying again. Both Starship and Super Heavy will be fully and rapidly reusable, potentially cutting the cost of spaceflight dramatically, Elon Musk has said.

SpaceX expects its Starship to succeed and perhaps even develop a form of routine, and who could doubt it? They expect Starship and Super Heavy to be up and running soon. The date often mentioned for the final system to be fully operational is 2023. The Artemis program has the stated goal of returning humans to the moon – specifically to the moon’s south pole region – by 2024, although many believe that goal is not feasible.

Read more: NASA’s moon program – Artemis – boosted at White House press briefing

By the way, according to Elon Musk, SpaceX’s reason for jumping from SN11 to SN15 is that it was built at the same time as SN12, SN13, and SN14, but with major improvements. For that reason, SpaceX engineers have decided to run with SN15 rather than finish building SN12–SN14, which the engineers already know are outdated at this point. It’s expected that a similar scrapping will happen with Starships SN18 and SN19. SN20 will likely have another set of major upgrades, and SpaceX currently has the ambitious goal of flying SN20 to orbit with Super Heavy before July.

A rocket body, seen from cameras carried higher up on the rocket, with the curve of Earth below.
SpaceX SN15 high-altitude test May 5, 2021. Image via

Bottom line: SpaceX Starship SN15 accomplished its high-altitude test flight on May 5, 2021, with a successful launch and landing. Earlier tests of the SN15 had been scrubbed. Earlier prototype Starships exploded upon landing.

Read more from EarthSky: Lift off! 4 astronauts in Crew-2 mission blast off to ISS


May 5, 2021

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