SpaceX's gigantic Starship spacecraft, a fully reusable super heavy-lift launch vehicle meant to return the first astronauts to the Moon's surface and eventually Mars, is sitting on the launch pad after having completed its final "flight readiness review."
While we anxiously wait for the space company to receive a green light from regulators to perform its first orbital test launch as soon as this month, it's a great time to look back at the long and arduous road that has led up to this moment.
The Elon Musk-led SpaceX has built over a dozen prototypes of its Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy booster to fine-tune the design — many of which met their demise after blowing up in spectacular fashion after brief suborbital test flights.
The company has blazed a new path, applying a "move fast and break things" approach to rocket development. Despite the repeated explosions, SpaceX has made significant strides in establishing its own heavy-lift launch platform, lending credence to its "try, try again" methodology.
Here's a brief history of the Starship's development — and the many explosions that rocked the private space industry along the way.
Back in late 2019, an upper-stage prototype dubbed Mk1 was meant to fly to an altitude of 12.4 miles, but during a pressurization test, the rocket — later dubbed "StarPopper" — burst its bulkhead like a can under too much pressure, allowing copious amounts of gas to escape.
Its successor, dubbed Mk2, didn't fare much better and never got its moment to shine. The prototype was later dismantled to make way for the next few iterations of the Starship spacecraft.
Later prototypes dubbed SN1 and SN3 — the "SN" is short for "serial number" — similarly buckled under the pressure before any test firing could begin.
May 2020: SN4
The fourth iteration called SN4, however, set the stage for a spectacular series of explosions as SpaceX transitioned from pressure tests to full-blown test firings of its massive Raptor rocket engines.
Starship SN4 erupted into a giant fireball during its fifth static firing in May 2020. Footage shows the gigantic water tank-shaped rocket suddenly and violently exploding in a massive cloud of smoke and flame.
Following the SN4 failure, SpaceX started building an orbital launch pad at its testing facilities in Boca Chica, Texas.
The company's first flight-ready prototype, dubbed SN5, managed to hop to an altitude of 500 feet by firing its single Raptor engine. To its credit, it didn't explode.
October 2020: SN8
SN8 was built to be the first full-fledged Starship prototype, putting on a hell of a show in October 2020 during its maiden voyage. It flew to an altitude of well over seven miles but made a harder-than-anticipated landing, causing it, too, to blow up in a massive fireball.
Footage shared by SpaceX shows SN8 firing its thrusters to perform the company's belly-flop" landing maneuver — before blowing up in yet another blast.
Starship landing flip maneuver pic.twitter.com/QuD9HwZ9CX
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 10, 2020
As Musk later explained, SN8's low "fuel header thank pressure" caused "touchdown velocity to be high," resulting in a "rapid unscheduled disassembly," a tongue-in-cheek term for an explosion.
February 2021: SN9
Its successor SN9 managed to fly to 6.2 miles, even rotating itself in midair to perform a "belly flop" maneuver. But the giant also blew up in a humongous fireball after landing at an unfortunate angle.
March 2021: SN10
Just over a month later, SpaceX tried again with its Starship SN10 prototype. While it did stick the landing after its inaugural high-altitude launch attempt, the colossal tower of stainless steel erupted into a now-familiar-looking fireball several minutes after touchdown.
Glorious slow-motion footage captured by YouTube channel Cosmic Perspective shows SN10 touching down softly before exploding.
"RIP SN10, honorable discharge," Musk tweeted at the time.
March 2021: SN11
Less than a month following SN10's demise, SpaceX geared up for its next attempt, launching SN11 inside a thick cloud of fog, resulting in spectacular views during SpaceX's live stream as it performed its belly-flop maneuver well above the clouds.
The ensuing explosion lit up the surrounding fog like an orange cloud. The rocket's debris then rained down from the sky, sending chunks of dirt flying, as seen in footage taken by NASASpaceFlight.
May 2021: SN15
Despite having experienced five gigantic fireball explosions over just two years, SpaceX made some key upgrades to its design for SN15 (SN12, SN13, and SN14 were abandoned), including better "avionics and software," according to the company's website.
Those efforts appeared to have paid off, since SN15 managed to fly to a height of roughly 6.2 miles and land safely on May 5, 2021.
That was the company's last launch attempt. Since then, SpaceX has built out its orbital launch testing facilities and has conducted several static fire tests of its Super Heavy rocket engines.
The company has even built a giant crane with "chopstick" arms to stack its Starship spacecraft on top of its Super Heavy booster and perhaps even catch the Starship as it lands back on the ground.
Now that the Federal Aviation Administration has completed its environmental assessment of the company's operations in Boca Chica, Texas, SpaceX still needs to secure a launch license before it can attempt its first-ever orbital test launch.
"Starship launch trending towards near the end of third week of April," Musk tweeted, suggesting we could see an orbital attempt as soon as next week.
And while SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell admitted earlier this year that the launch could well end up in an explosion at the pad, it's still an extremely important next step for SpaceX — whether it blows up or not.
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