SpaceX Clears Big Hurdle on Next-Gen Starship Rocket Program

 In State
Credit: Video frame from live stream by @SpacePadreIsle.

A pro­to­type rocket for a mas­sive reusable vehi­cle SpaceX is design­ing to fly people to the moon and Mars took off from a launch­ing stand in South Texas on Tuesday, flew to a height of rough­ly 500 feet, then made a con­trolled descent to a nearby land­ing pad.

The 500-foot (150-meter) “hop” test was the first of a Starship rocket with full-size pro­pel­lant tanks, and it sets the stage for a series of pro­gres­sive­ly higher atmos­pher­ic demon­stra­tion flights with future vehi­cles. Eventually, SpaceX aims to shoot the Starship into orbit on top of an even taller boost­er rocket named the “Super Heavy” to deliv­er to space huge cargo loads, satel­lites, tele­scopes, and sci­ence probes.

SpaceX’s longer-term roadmap includes an in-orbit refu­el­ing capa­bil­i­ty to make trips to the moon pos­si­ble. NASA selected SpaceX’s Starship vehicle as one of three con­tenders — along­side Blue Origin and Dynetics — for a human-rated lunar lander the space agency will fund for crewed moon mis­sions later this decade.

And the Starship is cen­tral to the vision of Elon Musk, SpaceX’s bil­lion­aire founder, who estab­lished the com­pa­ny with a mis­sion of send­ing people to Mars. Future Starships could cruise to Mars with up to 100 people, Musk says.

“Mars is look­ing real,” Musk tweet­ed after Tuesday’s test flight. “Progress is accel­er­at­ing.”

That mis­sion took a step closer to real­i­ty with Tuesday’s test flight, which was intend­ed to test out the Starship’s guid­ance system, the struc­tur­al strength of its stain­less steel tanks, and a number of other basic func­tions before attempt­ing launch­es to higher alti­tudes.

The Starship test flight Tuesday capped a busy few days for SpaceX. The company’s first human-rated Crew Dragon space­ship returned to Earth Sunday with a smooth splash­down in the Gulf of Mexico, bring­ing home NASA astro­nauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken after a 64-day test flight to the International Space Station.

SpaceX fol­lowed that up with an attempt to fly the Starship Monday evening in South Texas, but the com­pa­ny abort­ed the flight just before take­off. Another count­down Tuesday after­noon was like­wise abort­ed before SpaceX pressed ahead with a suc­cess­ful flight Tuesday evening.

One of SpaceX’s Raptor engines, fed by methane and liquid oxygen, pow­ered the Starship off its launch plat­form at 7:57 p.m. EDT (6:57 p.m. CDT; 2357 GMT) Tuesday. The throt­tleable Raptor engine pro­duces up to 440,000 pounds of thrust at full power, accord­ing to SpaceX, and it’s the most pow­er­ful methane-fueled rocket engine ever flown.

Live videos of the test streamed on YouTube showed the rocket climb away from the launch stand at SpaceX’s test site at Boca Chica, Texas, locat­ed just east of Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico near the U.S.-Mexico border. After swivel­ing its Raptor engine to main­tain con­trol, the shin­ing silver test­bed reached its max­i­mum alti­tude before com­menc­ing its descent, deploy­ing land­ing legs, and set­tling on flat ground after lat­er­al­ly cov­er­ing about the length of a foot­ball field in its approx­i­mate­ly 45-second flight.

SpaceX has addi­tion­al Starship vehi­cles in pro­duc­tion at the Boca Chica site, and one of those could attempt a flight up to 65,000 feet, or 20 kilo­me­ters. A timetable for that test flight has not been announced by SpaceX or Elon Musk.

“We’ll do sev­er­al short hops to smooth out launch process, then go high alti­tude with body flaps,” Musk tweet­ed Tuesday night.
The higher-alti­tude exper­i­ments will require SpaceX to install an aero­dy­nam­ic nose cone on future Starship vehi­cles, along with fins and other aero­sur­faces. Higher flights will also need three Raptor engines, before SpaceX final­ly goes to a six-engine Starship con­fig­u­ra­tion for orbital mis­sions, which will also require a heat shield for re-entry.

With the nose cone added, the Starship vehi­cle reach a height of around 164 feet, or 50 meters. The vehi­cle that flew Tuesday mea­sures around 30 feet (9 meters) in diam­e­ter, about one-and-a-half times the diam­e­ter of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet.

Combined with the Super Heavy first stage, the entire stack will stand around 394 feet (120 meters) tall. The Super Heavy will be pow­ered by more than 30 Raptor engines, accord­ing to SpaceX, making it the most pow­er­ful rocket ever built — gen­er­at­ing some 16 mil­lion pounds of thrust.

An oper­a­tional Starship could haul more than 100 metric tons, or 220,000 pounds, of cargo to low Earth orbit, SpaceX says.

SpaceX had a rocky road reach­ing Tuesday’s mile­stone test flight, but engi­neers tweaked the Starship’s design and intro­duced improved man­u­fac­tur­ing tech­niques to address struc­tur­al defi­cien­cies that led to the loss of four Starship pro­to­types during ground test­ing since late last year.

Each explo­sion during test­ing proved little more than a minor set­back, and SpaceX quick­ly moved on to the next Starship pro­to­type as part of the company’s fast-paced iter­a­tive devel­op­ment process.

Speaking to reporters and space fans last September, Musk suggested the first Starship pro­to­type could per­form a high-alti­tude atmos­pher­ic test flight before the end of 2019. That didn’t happen, but the high-alti­tude flight now appears within reach.

SpaceX says it will even­tu­al­ly replace its cur­rent fleet of space vehi­cles — the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rock­ets, and the Dragon space­ship — with the Starship. But those vehi­cles won’t be retired until SpaceX proves out the Starship’s capa­bil­i­ties and reli­a­bil­i­ty.

NASA offi­cials were close­ly watch­ing the Starship test flight Tuesday, which fol­lowed a suc­cess­ful test-firing of the vehi­cle on the launch stand at Boca Chica last week. Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s sci­ence mis­sion direc­torate, tweet­ed his con­grat­u­la­tions to SpaceX.

While NASA is con­sid­er­ing the com­mer­cial Starship rocket as a vehi­cle to ferry astro­nauts between lunar orbit and the moon’s sur­face, the agency’s plans for return­ing humans to the moon in the 2020s rely on the gov­ern­ment-owned Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew cap­sule to trans­port astro­nauts from the Earth to the vicin­i­ty of the moon.

Once in orbit around the moon, the Orion crew cap­sule would link up with a human-rated lunar lander — pos­si­bly a Starship — to fly the astro­nauts to the moon’s sur­face, then boost them back into space to ren­dezvous with Orion for the return trip to Earth.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said the SLS and Orion vehi­cles offer the only oppor­tu­ni­ty to launch astro­nauts off the Earth toward the moon by 2024, the timetable for a crewed lunar land­ing set last year by the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. But that could change after 2024 if SpaceX’s Starship, or other vehi­cles, come online.

NASA has pur­chased rides for astro­nauts on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon space­craft to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, and SpaceX is under contract to deliv­er cargo to the planned Gateway mini-space sta­tion in lunar orbit — a future stag­ing point for expe­di­tions to the moon’s sur­face — begin­ning as soon as 2024.

In April, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said SpaceX’s Starship “could be absolute­ly game-chang­ing” for space explo­ration.

“So we don’t want to dis­count it,” Bridenstine said. “We want to move for­ward. If they can have suc­cess, we want to enjoy that suc­cess with them.”

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.

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