Written by Daniel Maloney (News Writer)
One of the newest of SpaceX’s prototype rockets launched successfully on Tuesday, February 2nd, but, like its predecessor, failed to stick the landing. Starship prototype Serial Number 9, or SN9 soared to an altitude of over six miles, almost as high as commercial jets do. Everything was going as planned for the launch, including a successful “belly flop maneuver,” until one of the three Raptor engines failed to reignite on landing, exploding into a massive fireball. Although the final portion of the flight did not go as planned, SpaceX still views the launch to be a massive step forward in the production of Starship rockets. “We had, again, another great flight up… we’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit,” John Insprucker, the principal integration engineer said on the launch webcast.
After many delays and scrubbed launches, the launch finally occurred and everything seemed well, with no problems apparent whatsoever. As the rocket was doing a maneuver, commonly known as the “belly flop,” done to make the rocket slow down due to drag on the descent, it was almost doing a pencil dive straight down, rather than being parallel to the ground, but it was able to recover and complete the maneuver successfully. All still seemed well until the rocket had to reignite its engines to land back at the launch site, at which point only two of the three engines did, leading to a fiery end for SN9. A second rocket on-site at the time of the launch, SN10, thankfully had no apparent damage from the explosion. This rocket may launch as early as Thursday, February 11th, with Temporary Flight Restrictions being put in place for February 11, 12, and 13, but the launch can very easily be pushed back, as these launches have been many other times.
SpaceX and the FAA have had a form of controversy with the recent launch, and the launch of SN8 back in December. During this previous test, SpaceX was denied to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by U.S. regulations but proceeded anyways with the launch, which ended in an explosion similar to that of SN9’s launch. This prompted an investigation the same week as the SN8 launch, and later delayed a planned January 31st launch of SN9. Elon Musk, being frustrated with this process, took to Twitter saying that “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” also saying that under the current FAA rules, “humanity will never get to Mars.”
Starship is planned to be SpaceX’s largest rocket, made to transport both people and cargo to the Moon, Mars, and possibly beyond, similar to how Saturn V was used by NASA during the Space Race. But currently, the Starship is still in a prototype phase, with 7 flights having happened so far. Development started with Starhopper, a small vehicle made to test out the highly advanced Raptor engines, which eventually got us to where we are today with SN9 and others, which are some of the first prototypes that are the relative shape of the eventual Starship rocket. Unlike the rockets of the past, and even currently, Starship is meant to be fully reusable, which is why being able to land back at the launch site is so important for SpaceX, but launching into orbit will be done with a first stage called Super Heavy, that will also be able to land itself after sending the Starship into orbit. The rocket is also planned to be able to be refueled in orbit with another Starship being docked to it and then transferring the fuel into the rocket. With this SpaceX has said Starship will be able to carry over 100 tons of cargo to the surface of the Moon or Mars. But, SpaceX has also thought of the idea of using Starship for ultra-high-speed transportation of humans across the globe, saying that anywhere on the globe could be connected in an hour or less, but SpaceX has no concrete plans to use the Starship for this purpose. But, in June of 2020, Musk tweeted that the first test flights may start in “2 to 3 years,” which would be 2022 or 2023, meaning that SpaceX now is more interested in using Starship for this form of high-speed transportation.
With so many advanced ideas around the Starship, from helping put humans on Mars or ultra-high-speed transportation, this launch was a historic event that will pave the way for futuristic space-faring humanity.