SpaceX Starship Lifts Off!

Has this troubled project reached a turning point?

SN5 courtesy of Elon Musk via Twitter

It’s time to start saving for a ticket to Mars.

After months of fits and starts, the SpaceX Starship prototype known as SN5 (Serial Number 5) successfully lifted off, soared 150 meters over the launch site, deployed its landing legs and softly landed on a separate landing pad. While it looked like a floating grain silo, this flight marks a small but important milestone in the development of a potentially groundbreaking rocket system that could unlock human exploration of Mars and the Moon.

The path to this test flight was full of twists, turns and failures. There is no doubt that it took SpaceX much longer than anticipated to get here. The first prototype, known as Mark 1, blew up in pressure testing due to inadequate weld quality. The second prototype, known as SN1, also blew up in pressure testing. SN2, just a simple test tank, successfully proved out the pressure vessel, but SN3 and SN4 both exploded at the hand of ground service equipment glitches before they could fly.

Looking Forward

Now with a rebuilt launch pad, SN5 has taken Starship’s first steps toward the Moon and Mars. I am quite optimistic that Starship’s development will accelerate dramatically from this point forward. All prior failures stem from teething problems with the pressure vessel and the ground service equipment. It seems likely that these issues are (mostly) solved, enabling rapid iteration to finally take place.

While SN5 will likely fly again soon, next up to bat is SN6, which is already built and will conduct similar short test hops. SN7 and SN7.1 are test tanks designed to explore new manufacturing methods and a new proprietary stainless steel material that will optimize the future Starship’s strength and weight. This will culminate in SN8, the first full-size Starship upper stage prototype, which will attempt to fly to 20 km and perform a complex flip maneuver using flaps and thrusters. Getting this maneuver right is arguably the most difficult part of the whole Starship project. Once proven, few major obstacles remain on the path toward orbital flight, which I think can happen sometime next year.

Why it Matters

The continued success of SpaceX in advancing aerospace technology demonstrates the power of public-private partnerships. To ensure the ongoing technological progress of humanity, the government should greatly expand is research and development capabilities, partnering with private firms, to aid in their growth and development. Whether we realize it or not, we all benefit, directly or indirectly, from the advancements happening at NASA, SpaceX, and others.