Score one for SpaceX. Following protests from its competitors over a NASA Moon contract, Elon Musk’s company responded in the best way it knows how – by launching and landing another rocket.
Yesterday, Wednesday, May 5, SpaceX achieved a notable milestone with the first successful landing of its prototype Moon and Mars rocket, Starship.
The event came on the 60th anniversaty of the first American human spaceflight, Alan Shepard’s Freedom 7 mission on May 5, 1961.
Designed to one day take humans to Mars, Starship now has a more near-term goal thanks to a multi-billion-dollar contract from NASA: land humans on the Moon.
SpaceX has been steadily testing more advanced iterations of the ambitious vehicle at a test site in Boca Chica, Texas, with yesterday’s being the 15th prototype in all, dubbed SN15 (serial number 15).
Previous prototypes have launched successfully, climbing to altitudes of 10 kilometers, but none had landed without exploding – although SN10 in March came close.
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But yesterday’s flight, lifting off at 6.24 P.M. Eastern Time, ticked all the boxes. Launch, hover, belly flop return, and crucially, the landing. A small fire post-flight was extinguished without incident.
“Starship landing nominal!” a jubilant Musk wrote on Twitter.
You can rewatch the action unfold below.
The ultimate goal is that Starship, made of stainless steel and fueled by methane, will one day soon launch on a booster called Super Heavy, together towering nearly 400-feet tall – the largest rocket in history.
Both parts, designed to be reusable, will enable humans to travel to and from space with ease, with up to 100 people on each Starship vehicle.
Crew-less Starships will launch laden with fuel, refueling the crewed ships in orbit, which can then travel out into the Solar System.
NASA has bet big on this concept. In mid-April, it awarded SpaceX $2.9 billion to develop Starship as part of its Human Landing System (HLS) program.
SpaceX would be tasked with performing an uncrewed demonstration landing of Starship on the Moon, before a crewed landing in 2024.
And proving Starship can land on Earth is a crucial step towards that goal.
Not everyone is happy. SpaceX was the sole contractor selected by NASA for the lunar landings, despite the agency previously suggesting it would select more than one.
As such its competitors, the defense firm Dynetics and Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin, filed protests against the contract to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
They argued that selecting only SpaceX – which admittedly still has considerable technical challenges to solve in getting Starship to the lunar surface – would hamper efforts to land on the Moon without competition.
While the protests were to be investigated, NASA said late last month it would suspend SpaceX’s contract, a norm in these situations. The chances of the contract being completely overturned, however, are unlikely.
Yet while legal teams bicker, SpaceX continued its relentless march onwards. Starship SN15 launched, hovered, and landed.
SN16 waits in the wings.