starship nasa spacex

Image via Flickr/SpaceX

Starship launch: Here’s what a successful test flight means for NASA and SpaceX

SpaceX successfully landed its Starship rocket during a test flight. It was a big deal too – previous prototypes all went up in flames.

starship nasa spacex

Image via Flickr/SpaceX

SpaceX on Thursday successfully landed its prototype Starship rocket during a test flight in Texas. It was quite a big deal – the four previous prototypes all went up in a ball of flames.

The news was confirmed by Elon Musk on social media, tweeting “Starship landing nominal!” Here’s why the successful launch is such a big deal.

Starship flight test – What you need to know

What is a Starship test flight?

During testing, the rocket shuts off its three Raptor engines one by one as it peaks during the flight. It then tips sideways before plunging back down to Earth.

If the landing is successful, the prototype would use its four wing flaps to control the fall. Once it nears the ground, it reignites the engines and flips itself upright again – known as a bellyflop – before landing on the launch pad.

During the previous four tests, the prototype performed a successful belly flop, but exploded minutes after landing.

Not perfect, but a win nonetheless

This particular Starship prototype – Starship Serial No. 15, or SN15 – is the latest in a series of test rockets developed by SpaceX. It will eventually become the Starship mega-spaceship, humanity’s vehicle to the stars.

The execution of the Starship flight test on Thursday wasn’t perfect – a small fire engulfed the base of the rocket after landing. This time around, the rocket didn’t explode and any day without explosions is a good day at SpaceX.

SpaceX webcaster John Insprucker said the fire wasn’t “unusual with the methane fuel” the team used. This brings us to why SpaceX needed a win after four SN Prototype explosions.

To the Moon, Mars and beyond

Once the final design of Starship is complete, Musk will be one step closer to sending humans to the Moon and to Mars, having said in the past that he is planning to send a crewed mission to the moon by 2023.

While the thought of humanity going to Mars is fascinating, Starship will have other applications as well. For one, it is expected to become NASA’s next moon lander. That’s a pretty big deal.

Humans haven’t “put boots” on the Moon since the seventies. While this is a massive opportunity for SpaceX, we can only imagine that added pressure to progress the programme is keeping everyone on their toes.

The space race is competitive

Not only is NASA’s contract worth $2.9 billion, but it also put SpaceX up against its competitors – Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Dynetics, Greg Lester’s applied science and information technology company from Alabama.

Both rivals formally contested NASA’s decision to go with SpaceX by filing protests with the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) against NASA. Blue Origin accused NASA of “moving the goalposts at the last minute”.

The pending litigation has now forced NASA to halt any work related to the contract until the GAO issues its ruling. The GAO is expected to respond by August 2021.

Reusable space exploration rocket

Eventually, SpaceX plans to combine the Starship spaceship – which would be able to carry 100 metric tonnes into orbit – with a Super Heavy rocket, creating a fully reusable system to explore deep into our solar system.

Yes, that would make it the most powerful launch vehicle ever developed. Musk’s plan is to eventually transform humanity “into a multi-planetary species with a colony on Mars”, and one day, beyond.

Short term, Starship will eventually dock to NASA’s planned lunar orbital station. Using the Orion Crew Capsule, astronauts will be transported from Earth to the orbital station, before Starship sets them down on the Moon.