Another day, another Starship prototype explosion.
In November, SpaceX’s SN8 met its early damage after smashing into the ground, followed by SN9 in February. SN10 came closest to touching down successfully earlier this month, appearing to make a soft landing before blowing to bits mere minutes later.
Less than a month later, SpaceX rolled out its SN11 prototype onto the launchpad. This morning’s launch, however, was arguably more of a setback, with the towering structure lighting up the heavy fog around it in an apparent mid-descent blast — and then raining down on the ground in the form of large debris.
The third time wasn’t quite the charm, in other words, and the fourth wasn’t, either.
It’s been a spectacular sight every time, watching four 165-foot stainless steel structures perform a well-rehearsed “belly flop” maneuver ten kilometers in the sky above the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test facilities.
But the violent “rapid unscheduled disassemblies,” which is SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s preferred euphemism for the blasts, should give anybody pause. This is, after all, the vehicle that SpaceX wants to use to carry the first astronauts to the Moon by 2024, potentially the first time humans have walked the lunar surface since the Apollo missions nearly half a century ago.
Musk, though, doesn’t seem dismayed by the repeated explosions. To the billionaire, SN11 is already yesterday’s news.
“SN15 rolls to launch pad in a few days,” Musk announced in a tweet following Tuesday’s explosion. “It has hundreds of design improvements across structures, avionics/software and engine.”
“Hopefully, one of those improvements covers this problem,” he wrote, referring to one of SN11’s three engines having “issues on ascent & didn’t reach operating chamber pressure during landing burn” this morning.
“If not, then retrofit will add a few more days,” he added.
Following SN15 will be SN20, which will have major tech revisions, according to Musk. “Those ships will be orbit-capable with heat shield and stage separation system. Ascent success probability is high.”
But reentering Earth’s atmosphere is no easy feat, with any spacecraft having to endure extremely high forces and temperatures. “However, SN20+ vehicles will probably need many flight attempts to survive Mach 25 entry heating & land intact.”
SpaceX is also hard at work developing the gigantic rocket booster called Super Heavy, designed to carry Starship into orbit.
According to Musk, the first full-scale prototype of Super Heavy, called BN1, will be a “manufacturing pathfinder, so will be scrapped. We learned a lot, but have already changed design to BN2.”
Musk has some great ambitions when it comes to BN2.
“Goal is to get BN2 with engines on orbital pad before end of April,” he wrote. “It might even be orbit-capable if we are lucky.”