Elon Musk says that SpaceX wants to reuse its first flight-proven Starship prototype, although the rocket’s second hop might come after the debut of a totally different ship.
On August 4th, for the first time ever, a full-scale Starship prototype measuring some 9m (30 ft) wide and 30m (~100 ft) tall lifted off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas test facilities. Just three weeks shy of the first anniversary of Starhopper’s last flight test, Starship serial number 5 (SN5) essentially repeated the stubby prototype’s 150m (~500 ft) hop before (relatively) gently landing on an adjacent concrete pad.
Over the last several days, SpaceX has gradually been working through the unprecedented task of inspecting, safing, and relocating a flight-proven Starship. At the same time, the company has to check out the fixed launch mount structured that supported the test flight and provided Starship with power, propellant, and wired communications. As teams work to get both ship and mount ready for round two, CEO Elon Musk has taken to Twitter to discuss some of SpaceX’s nearer-term goals and plans for Starship testing – including SN5’s role in them.
Starship SN5’s hop debut was a spectacular success for SpaceX, verifying that steel and radically simple and manufacturing techniques can quickly build a cheap pressure vessel capable of controlled flight. The flight also reaffirmed that the next-generation Raptor engine is capable of operating uninterrupted for at least ~50 seconds, although Starhopper’s 150m hop proved the same thing some 20 engine prototypes and 13 months prior.
Still, while it unequivocally proved that SpaceX is on the right track, both the lead-up to Starship SN5’s hop and the hop itself hint that a few kinks will still need to be worked out. Notably, during SN5’s hop, part of Raptor engine SN27 appeared to catch fire at some point after ignition, producing substantial flames that lasted for at least 10 seconds. For any rocket engine, an onboard fire is always a possibility, but most engines are either designed to tolerate the inhospitable environment they create or heavily insulated from it.
Festooned with sensitive wires and harnesses, Raptor prototypes are likely not meant to experience an extended onboard fire and remain functional, but SN27 nevertheless did just that. At a minimum, Starship SN5 thus likely needs a new Raptor engine before it can begin to prepare for a second hop.
The prototype will also assuredly need several new landing legs after destroying at least two during its launch and landing debut. It’s worth pointing out that the leg damage visible above is almost certainly the result of an intentional design choice, ensuring that landings slightly rougher than expected transfer most of their stress into Starship’s legs instead of its hull. Given just how simple they appear, the current leg design likely makes them effectively disposable, allowing SpaceX to focus its effort on unsolved problems as a more refined and reusable leg design comes to fruition.
Aside from confirming that SpaceX at least intends to reuse Starship SN5 on future hops, Musk revealed that he wants to refine the launch procedure until the company is able to easily perform multiple Starship hops per day. This suggests that the next one or several months could be chock full of Starship hop attempts. Musk also noted that Starship SN6 – a prototype built along SN5 and effectively completed weeks ago – would likely attempt its first flight before SN5 hops a second time. SpaceX began stacking the upgraded Starship SN8 prototype just a few days ago, raising the question of whether Starship SN6 would be made redundant before it could even left the factory.
Thankfully, it seems that the ship will instead be able to work alongside its sister (SN5) to help SpaceX simplify and expedite Starship test and launch operations. As of now, it’s unclear when SpaceX intends to restart Starship testing, but Musk’s comments point towards the next test happening far sooner than later.
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