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Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a reputation for blowing things up. Test flights of their space platforms end up as spectacular fireballs on the landing pad as often as not, putting a torch to a bit over $216M every time it happens. As unconventional an approach as it might be to test things with physical hardware rather than endless simulations, though, it does get results, and it seems to get them faster than taking the more cerebral approach.

Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly? Not this time, thank you.

So it was with yesterday’s test flight of the stainless steel hulled unmanned SpaceX Starship serial number 15 (SN15). With its takeoff propelled by three Raptor engines, it flew to an altitude of 10.5 kilometers, punching an orange hole in the cloud cover on its way up.

It then converted to horizontal unpowered flight for its reentry. The wings on the rocket serve the opposite purpose to those on a conventional aircraft: they’re intended to produce drag rather than lift, to help put the craft in its proper “bellyflop” orientation during final approach for landing.

Just before landing, the ship tilted itself back up into a vertical position, then landed on its tail using the thrust from a single Raptor rocket engine. Unlike previous attempts, however, SN15 did not experience a rapid unscheduled disasembly as had its three predecessors.

We expect it to explode. It’s weird if it doesn’t explode, frankly.

Elon Musk

SN15’s four immediate predecessors all ended up in pieces after attempting similar flights over the past five months, succeeding at every mission goal – except for that all important “soft landing”. The most recent one, SN10, seemed to touch down safely after its March flight, but a fire broke out at its base about eight minutes after the landing and triggered an explosion that can only described as cinematic in its scope.

A similar fire erupted at SN15’s base after yesterday’s landing, but it was quickly put out. One of the reasons for these fires is the fuel used. The SpaceX Starship series uses liquid methane as its primary fuel. You know what else uses methane? Your kitchen stove. It’s literally the same stuff. When unconfined, it ignites readily, and can be something of a problem to put out.

SpaceX did learn important lessons from those other rough landings, many of which could only be learned by building all the hardware and actually trying it to see what happens. SN15 carries improvements over the previous prototypes based on what they learned from those previous prototypes, too.

“SN15 has vehicle improvements across structures, avionics and software, and the engines that will allow more speed and efficiency throughout production and flight: specifically, a new enhanced avionics suite, updated propellant architecture in the aft skirt, and a new Raptor engine design and configuration,” SpaceX representatives wrote in a description of yesterday’s flight.

To Mars

The point of the Starship development series is eventually to take people and cargo to the moon, Mars and other distant destinations. The system consists of two elements, both of which are designed to be fully and rapidly reusable: a spacecraft called Starship and a giant first-stage booster named Super Heavy.

Both of these vehicles will be powered by SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engine. Starship will have six Raptors, and Super Heavy will sport about 30, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has said.

Though SN15 is a full-scale Starship prototype in terms of height and width, it features just three Raptors. Future test variants will be more powerful, and we should see these brawnier vehicles fly relatively soon; Musk has said that SpaceX aims to launch a Starship into Earth orbit before the end of the year.

If the test program progresses well, Starship could be up and running not long after that. Musk said recently that he expects the system to be fully operational sometime in 2023, though he did acknowledge that his timelines tend to be ambitious.

NASA has picked SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft, seen here in an artist’s depiction, to land Artemis astronauts on the moon.

spacex starship on the moon
An artist’s illustration of SpaceX’s Starship on the moon. In April 2021, NASA announced that SpaceX had won the contract to build the lunar lander for its Artemis program. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX already has a Starship mission on the books with a 2023 target launch date — “dearMoon,” which will send Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and a handful of other people on a weeklong flight around Earth’s nearest neighbor.

Starship will also fly NASA astronauts to the Moon, if all goes according to plan. The space agency’s Artemis program of lunar exploration recently picked Starship as its crewed lunar lander.

Artemis aims to establish a sustainable, long-term human presence on and around the Moon by the end of the 2020’s. The knowledge and skills gained during this effort will help humanity get to Mars in the 2030’s, NASA officials have said.

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