Well… sort of.
Space X tested prototype Serial Number 8 of its “Starship” upper stage on Wednesday. They’d tried to launch on Tuesday but there was a scrub at T-1.3 seconds because one of the engines didn’t like something. Kind of a disappointment but that’s how testing goes. The problem must not have been serious as they rescheduled it for the next day.
The next day the NASA reconnaissance plane which was planned to film the launch and flight from the air had a malfunction and couldn’t take off but they decided to go without it. Then we had an unexpected one hour hold as some idiot fishing boat violated the off-shore safety zone established by the Coast Guard. Fine. Highway patrol and Space X security stopped a semi with a trailer trying to drive down coastal State Highway 4 which had been closed for the event. We finally launched at somewhere around 4:40 pm local.
Take-off was picture perfect as the rocket rose high into the Texas sky. During the flight each of the engines turned on and off at different times. The rocket did exactly what it was supposed to. It reached its apex and hovered, moving slowly into position, then flipped over on its side to plummet back to Earth in free fall.
This test only included 3 engines and a small amount of fuel. These are the experimental Raptor engines, the first full-flow staged combustion rocket engine ever flown. Each delivers 200 tons of thrust with the 2nd highest thrust to weight ratio of any engine ever made. (The Merlin engine, Space X’s workhorse in the Falcon series rockets, is the highest.) Three more, modified for vacuum operation, will be added to the final Starship for a total of 6 while the Super Heavy booster will have either 35 or 41. Musk believes in a lot of smaller engines for redundancy. Lose even a couple and you can just keep going.
It fell mostly straight with a small initial glide, its side fins actuating to keep the body horizontal. An almost empty rocket is very light and has a terminal velocity less than a typical skydiver. Then just before impact, the engines fired to flip it back up to upright and slow the rocket down for a vertical landing, a bit off-center but still on the landing pad. Almost stuck it…
Vertical landing is not something new. Space X has been using vertical landing to recover its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters for some time. Earlier Starship prototypes had launched and landed but they’d only gone 150ft. The novel aspects of this flight were the 8 mile apogee of the flight and the unique belly flop return flight. Everything more or less worked except that the final landing burn did not slow the rocket sufficiently. It hit too hard, collapsed and the small amount of remaining fuel ignited into a fireball.
Not even that big of a fireball. Structures only a couple of hundred feet from impact appeared unaffected. We quickly learned from a tweet by Elon Musk that they already knew the cause. The pressure in the liquid methane tank was too low which starved the engines of fuel and thereforepower. The now oxygen-rich mixture burned too hot and destroyed the engine innards with a telltale green flame. They slowed it down as much as they could but not quite enough.
I heard a few commentators in the mainstream media pronounce this test a failure, which only consolidates my belief that the mainstream media do not have a clue about the news they cover.
The belly flop worked perfectly, as did the reorientation for landing. Neither had ever been done before. Three radically new rocket engines did their jobs perfectly. The vehicle was stable in all stages of flight. That’s what was being tested. This was serial number 8. Number 9 is already assembled and ready to go as soon as they scrape the wreckage off the landing pad. Numbers 10 & 11 are almost complete, as is prototype SN 1 of the first stage booster (aka Super Heavy).
The boom at the end was not a surprise. Musk had stated in advance there was only a 30% chance of success overall.
The payload compartment of the Starship has as much volume as the interior of a 747. When mated with the booster, it will be able to loft 100+ tons to low earth orbit with 100% reusability. Instead of hundreds of millions, the same orbital launch will cost millions or even hundreds of thousands. If all you have is a small cube-sat to piggyback, the cost of getting it to orbit will be thousands – maybe even hundreds. His ultimate goal is to set up a permanent self-sustaining Mars colony and sell tickets to Mars and back for less than it costs to buy an average American home.
Musk’s protocol for developing a rocket is unlike any other rocket builder. He builds a rocket, launches it and most likely it fails. He identifies the failure, fixes it and launches again. Rinse and repeat until it stops failing. No other development program, government or private, does this. It is what turned the Falcon 9 into the most reliable launch vehicle in the world. The reliability and inexpensiveness of Falcon 9 is why he went from the edge of bankruptcy to being the third richest man in the world.
Sadly, he does not believe he have the chance to make to Mars. He does believe that people alive today will have that option.
Here’s a prescient bit of science fiction that everyone should read: