A towering SpaceX prototype composed of rings of steel slowly took flight from its Texas launch pad Wednesday, ascending thousands of feet before performing a never-before-seen “belly flop” maneuver during its subsequent landing attempt.
The company’s next-generation Starship vehicle, ultimately designed to fulfill CEO Elon Musk’s vision of putting humans on Mars, launched at 4:45 p.m. on a high-altitude test flight to stress hardware and maneuvers. The prototype was known as Serial Number 8, or SN8.
Over its nearly seven-minute mission, Starship successfully demonstrated it could launch under the power of its three Raptor engines, ascend to about 41,000 feet, then use its “body” and folding wings to slow down against the friction of the atmosphere – a maneuver appropriately named “belly flopping.” The 165-foot vehicle is designed to use a similar braking maneuver when approaching the red planet’s surface, after which it will flip and land much like the company’s Falcon 9 rockets.
Though SN8 approached its landing site as intended, Musk said low pressure readings in one of its tanks meant it came in too hot – literally. Starship exploded, but did touch down exactly where it was supposed to.
A successful landing would have been a bonus, but the overall test was a success, Musk said.
“We got all the data we needed,” Musk said via Twitter. “Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!! Mars, here we come!!”
Now workers will continue refining Starship and constructing its not-yet-flown first stage booster called Super Heavy. Combined, the two will stand nearly 400 feet tall and dwarf every rocket ever flown both in size and power.
Located near the Texas-Mexico border, Boca Chica serves as the company’s hotbed for Starship testing. The privately owned, remote facility gives SpaceX the flexibility to conduct tests and build futuristic vehicles without the kind of interference it would encounter at a military base, for example.
For decades, Musk has dreamed of establishing not only a colony, but a “self-sustaining civilization” on the surface of Mars. He sees it as a requirement for humanity’s long-term survival.
“It appears that consciousness is a very rare and precious thing,” he said during a 2019 update in Boca Chica. “And we should take whatever steps we can to preserve the light of consciousness.”
But Starship isn’t only for Mars. Earlier this year, for example, NASA awarded SpaceX $135 million for a derivative designed specifically for trips to the moon. Musk has also said it can be used for deploying very large payloads – like space-based telescopes or batches of hundreds of small satellites – to Earth orbit using a slightly modified version.
In the meantime, Falcon 9 remains the workhorse of SpaceX’s fleet, with its next flight slated for liftoff from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Friday.
Follow Emre Kelly on Twitter: @EmreKelly.