All eyes were on Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Wednesday evening as one of its Starship prototypes soared into the skies over south Texas in the United States, achieving what its predecessors could not: a successful landing.
“Starship landing nominal,” Musk tweeted following the test.
This was the fifth test flight of the craft and seemingly the most important. That is because last month, NASA awarded SpaceX a highly-coveted contract to use its Starship as a means to transport astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024 as part of the agency’s Artemis moon programme.
Wednesday’s test launch came nearly 60 years to the day from when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, a successful suborbital flight that led then-President John F Kennedy to make landing on Americans on the moon for the first time a priority.
SpaceX was one of the three companies vying for the contract, which is worth billions. Both Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Alabama-based defence contractor Dynetics cried foul over the sole-source contract, claiming NASA gave SpaceX an unfair advantage. Blue Origin also claims that Starship’s design is risky and could serve to monopolise future US space projects.
Musk, SpaceX’s CEO, says he founded the company to make humanity a multi-planet species, and he stands by his belief that Starship is the vessel to make that happen.
A Starship is born
During a 2015 conference in Guadalajara, Mexico, in front of a packed audience, Musk first shared his idea of a huge vehicle that would one day transport people into deep space.
His plan was nothing if not ambitious. The ship would carry as many as 100 people to Mars at a time, and would be lifted by a separate, massive booster outfitted with dozens of engines — and both parts would be fully reusable.
That original design for SpaceX’s Starship has gone through several changes over the years as engineers work to make it a reality. Fashioned out of stainless steel, the craft resembles a retro-looking spaceship you would have seen in 1950s science fiction.
SpaceX is known for its rapid development, and Starship is no different. The company has multiple prototypes in various phases of development at its facilities in south Texas, each playing a role in the vehicle’s development.
This was the company’s fifth attempt to prove not only that Starships can fly, but that they can also land intact.
Starship landing nominal!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 5, 2021
Powered by three of SpaceX’s newly developed Raptor engines (which are fuelled by methane as opposed to rocket-grade kerosene like its Falcon family of rockets), the Starship prototype, called SN 15, rose off its launch pad and climbed to an altitude of roughly 10km (6.2 miles) and briefly hovered there.
Then it began its descent, belly-flopping through the atmosphere — positioned horizontally to the ground to slow its momentum — before reorienting itself and making a controlled, nose-up landing.
By design, each of the vehicle’s Raptor engines shut down one by one as the rocket approached its peak altitude.
During the descent, control fins went through a programmed sequence to steer the re-entry. Finally, right on cue, all three Raptors relit to flip and slow the vehicle before relying on just a single engine to land.
These manoeuvres are key parts of the test flight, designed to show that SpaceX engineers can throttle the Starship’s power.
Theoretically, the six Raptor engines on the orbital Starship will generate enough power to lift off from the surface of the moon and Mars — where the pull of gravity is relatively weak. But it needs help from a rocket known as Super Heavy to leave Earth.
An estimated 30 engines will be needed for the Super Heavy to launch and return to the pad, just as the company’s Falcon 9 rockets do now.
But despite the engineering challenges, Musk is convinced that Starship’s combination of rapid reusability and power will enable humans to start visiting other worlds in the very near future.
According to the Starship website, the vehicle will be able to deliver 100 metric tonnes to low-Earth orbit, about four times what Falcon 9 can lift. Ever optimistic, Musk continues to state that the rocket could be carrying people to Mars by the mid-2020s.
Since the first large-scale Starship test last August, each new prototype has been more complex. The first ones, resembling water towers or spray cans, lacked a nose cone and flaps and did not look like traditional rockets. They were powered by a single Raptor engine and only flew several hundred feet in the air before landing — proof that the core of the craft could actually fly.
The company’s relatively rapid test cycle produces a lot of fireworks up front, but by having a stable of Starships at their disposal, engineers can try, fail, and try again until they succeed. Each setback provides the company with a wealth of data on how to improve next time.
SpaceX is not the only one that is betting on Starship. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa was the first to back Starship, booking a flight around the moon.
That mission is slated to blast off in 2023 if all goes as planned. More recently, NASA threw its support behind Starship when it selected the craft to be its next human landing system.
“We were looking to see what industry partners could bring in terms of innovation and solutions,” Lisa Watson-Morgan, the Human Landing System programme manager, told Al Jazeera. “We stand behind SpaceX.”
Starship will fly on two missions for the agency, one as a test flight to prove it has what it takes to deliver humans to the lunar surface — a feat that has not been achieved since the Apollo era. The second flight, which will carry astronauts to the moon, could launch as early as 2024.
NASA awarded SpaceX $2.89bn for these two missions. But this contract could be even more lucrative should NASA select SpaceX to fly recurring lunar missions later in the 2020s. And perhaps more significantly, the selection shows that NASA has bet on a bold future of exploration.
“If Starship meets the goals Elon Musk has set for it, Starship getting this contract is like the US government supporting the railroads in the Old West here on Earth,” Rick Tumlinson, an industry executive, told Al Jazeera. “It is transformational to degrees no one today can understand.”
That is because Starship has the potential of transporting not just a handful of astronauts, but many.
In its bid for NASA’s Human Landing System, SpaceX submitted a version of its Mars vehicle as a lunar lander.
For the last five years, SpaceX has largely self-funded the development of Starship as the reusable upper stage of a huge rocket that is intended to take dozens of people to Mars at a time in a six-month voyage. Thus, Starship is massively oversized to take two or four astronauts down to the surface of the moon. But of the three landers, it is the only one with a direct path towards full reuse — something that Musk says is an incredibly difficult achievement.
“It’s stupidly difficult to have a fully reusable orbital system,” he said following the success of his company’s third astronaut mission, which launched on April 23.
As such, Starship is the most demanding technically of the three vehicles because of its size and aspirations. Among the biggest hurdles is learning to land Starship, both on the moon and back on Earth.
And to conduct missions to the moon and beyond, SpaceX must develop the technology to refuel Starship in low-Earth orbit — a capability that currently does not exist.
Starship is a vehicle unlike any seen before. If successful, the massive spacecraft would open up a world of new possibilities to NASA, including achieving its long-desired goal of rapid, low-cost reuse of a launch system.
Abhi Tripathi is an engineer who has worked at both NASA and SpaceX, and now leads mission operations at the Space Science Laboratory at the University of California Berkeley.
“In picking the Starship architecture, NASA is helping enable a path toward a super heavy launch vehicle, in-space propellant storage, in-space refuelling, and large up and down mass to planetary surfaces,” Tripathi said.
This capability is one that will benefit NASA and other agencies. Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, says there are 20 billion metric tonnes of water on the moon — more than enough to fully support the growing space economy. We just need the technology to take advantage of it.
With Starship now on track to reach the moon, its existence makes NASA’s overarching goal of putting boots on Mars all the more possible.