SpaceX launched a prototype Starship rocket at high altitude and landed it for the first time on Wednesday, overcoming a key technical challenge in Elon Musk’s blitz test campaign to build a fully reusable Mars rocket. Musk said the SN15 rocket contained “hundreds of design improvements” over older high-altitude prototypes, all of which were destroyed in explosive landing attempts.
The SN15 spacecraft took off at 6:24 p.m. ET from SpaceX’s remote facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, soaring more than 6 miles into the sky to test a number of in-flight maneuvers. As the SN15 approaches maximum altitude, the three Raptor engines of the SN15 gradually shut down to begin a horizontal free fall to the ground before re-igniting two of its engines to perform a complex “landing rollover maneuver”, where it shifts vertically for slow touchdown.
The rocket deployed a set of tiny legs and landed firmly on a concrete platform not far from its launch pad, becoming the first prototype spacecraft to survive its high altitude flight. A small fire appeared near the base of the rocket after landing – “not unusual with the methane we carry,” said SpaceX engineer and live broadcast announcer John Insprucker – but it was extinguished within minutes later.
«Starship landing nominal!» Musk tweeted about seven minutes after SN15’s touchdown, declaring success.
Starship landing nominal!
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 5, 2021
SN15’s successful landing marks a major milestone in SpaceX’s Starship test campaign. The four high-altitude prototypes that preceded it suffered an explosive fate while attempting to land – either on, shortly before, or moments after touchdown.
SpaceX’s Starship System is designed as a fully reusable rocket system designed to send humans and up to 100 tonnes of cargo to the Moon and Mars. 16-story high-altitude prototypes like SN15 are only the top half of Starship. The lower half will be a massive “super heavy” booster that will help launch the upper half of Starship out of Earth before returning to Earth.