CEO Elon Musk says that SpaceX will livestream Starship’s harrowing high-altitude launch and landing debut “warts and all,” offering a rare glimpse behind the scenes of a high-risk aerospace endeavor.
As of November 1st, Starship prototype serial number 8 (SN8) has just kicked off what will likely be the rocket’s last round of ground tests. If it passes those tests, including cryogenic proofing and at least one more triple-Raptor static fire, the path will be clear for SN8’s first high-altitude launch attempt. Slightly downgraded from an apogee of 20 km to 15 km, the massive steel rocket will attempt to fly more than 30% higher than modern passenger jets before quite literally free-falling almost all the way back to earth.
The test flight will be about as bizarre – if not weirder – than it already sounds and, as Musk has lately been working overtime to convey, such uncharted terrain that almost anything could happen.
Over the last week or so, Musk has posted half a dozen or more tweets focused on attempting to manage the public’s expectations of Starship’s first high altitude flight. The headline, as mentioned above, is that almost anything could feasibly happen – only one outcome of which is a fully successful launch, freefall, flip, and landing. To successfully complete the unproven landing maneuver SpaceX hopes to demonstrate, Starship SN8 will need to launch under the power of three Raptor engines – likely passing through the sound barrier in the process – before coasting to a 15 km (~50,000 ft) apogee.
The ship will then gently arc over until it’s perpendicular to the ground and proceed to freefall ~95% of the way back to Earth, using its four large flaps like a skydiver’s hands and feet to control pitch, roll, and yaw. Around 250-500 meters (~800-1600 ft) above the ground, Starship will reignite one, two, or all three Raptor engines, unleash small cold-gas thrusters in its nose and tail, and effectively perform a 90-degree flip, optimally coming to a halt exactly on time in the form of a soft touchdown on a concrete pad.
To make it through that process unscathed, Starship SN8 will effectively have to navigate a minefield of potential failure modes, ranging from vibrations caused by multiple Raptors operating in flight, premature engine shutdown, structural failure from new stresses, electrical (i.e. flap) failures, engine and tank valve failures, and much, much more. On the other hand, SpaceX has successfully flown two separate Starships on two separate flights, serving as a strong foundation for SN8 and its successors to expand upon.
If successful, it will be a huge step forward for the Starship program, potentially opening the door for far higher and faster flight tests, full-scale heat shield development, and even two-stage orbital launch attempts with the first Super Heavy booster prototypes. If SN8’s big day ends less successfully, Starship SN9 will be nearly ready to take the reins, as will SN10. With SpaceX now committed to providing live coverage, it’s safe to say that SN8’s high-altitude launch debut bound to be a spectacle.