Two spectacular flights, two spectacular crash landings. Will the third time be the stimulus?
On Wednesday, SpaceX is preparing for another soaring of Starship, a giant next-generation spaceship that Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of the private rocket company, dreams of sending to Mars one day.
The latest prototype, called the SN10, has been on the test site since the beginning of the year and is aiming for a height of just over ten kilometers, which is well below the orbital heights that SpaceX would like to one day reach. (That requires a powerful booster tier called Super Heavy, which is still under development.)
The prototype was outwardly similar to the versions that came on the market in February and December. Both crashed while trying to land on the testing site in Boca Chica, Texas, a community near Brownsville.
“We just need to work a little on this landing,” said John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer who hosted the test’s webcast in February.
Every flight, even if it ends in a crash, provides SpaceX engineers with additional data as they work towards a version of the spacecraft that can reach Earth orbit.
The final test on February 2 came after a skirmish between SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration that regulates rocket launches. The FAA said the launch came in December without the agency’s approval. SpaceX had requested that this flight be waived despite no evidence that a shock wave generated by an explosion during the test would not pose a threat to the public. The FAA denied the request. SpaceX started anyway.
Following an investigation, the FAA allowed SpaceX to resume launch in February. When that flight ended in another crash, the agency again requested an investigation, which apparently had been less difficult. The agency approved the test on Wednesday.
Mr. Musk’s company has grown successful in the startup business and is now one of the most valuable privately owned companies in the world. The Falcon 9 missiles have become a dominant workhorse for sending satellites into orbit. It routinely transports cargo to the International Space Station and has lifted NASA astronauts there twice in 2020. Further trips are planned for this year.
However, many are skeptical of Mr. Musk’s claim that the company is only a few years away from sending a spaceship to Mars, saying he has repeatedly set schedules for SpaceX that have proven far too optimistic about how quickly they will come about arrived.
When he released an update on Starship’s development in 2019, he said that an altitude test would take place within months and that orbital flights could take place in early 2020.
Instead, several catastrophic failures occurred due to faulty welding. When the fuel tanks stopped bursting, two of the prototypes made short successful flights last year. These earlier Starship prototypes resembled spray paint cans with the labels removed and soared nearly 500 feet on a single rocket engine before being returned to the test site in Texas.
In a video released Tuesday night, Musk said Starship would be ready to put humans into orbit and beyond by 2023. He made the remarks in a video posted by Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese entrepreneur who helps finance the development of Spaceship. Mr. Maezawa intends to fly around the moon and back to earth for about a week.
In Tuesday’s video, Mr. Maezawa announced that he would take eight passengers on the lunar voyage and invited applications from people who wanted to leave. On Wednesday, he said more than 100,000 people have already expressed an interest.