Starship makes successful first, high altitude test flight
At 4:45 p.m. CDT Dec. 9, 2020, the SpaceX Starship prototype SN8 finally launched in an unprecedented and long-awaited flight test of the vehicle.
The experimental test vehicle lifted off and slowly ascended to its target height of 12.5 kilometers, with every aspect of the test appearing nominal, until the final landing burn.
Starship appeared to have an engine shutdown prior to apogee, whether by design or unplanned, before slowing its ascent and hovering at altitude momentarily. The test vehicle then performed a “belly flop maneuver” executing a controlled free fall on its side, leading to the final landing “flip maneuver” to re-orient itself vertically for landing.
Astoundingly, the test appeared to be nearing a perfect ending until the vehicle landed with a much higher velocity than planned, exploding upon impact with the ground.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, however, is still thrilled about the test, stating on Twitter: “Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!”
Musk also took to Twitter to state his excitement, as well as the cause for the hard landing and “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” also known as a RUD.
“Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!”Musk tweeted.
The results of today’s unprecedented test were surprisingly successful given that Musk has stated multiple times that he only expected a 30% chance of success with all test objectives.
This was by far the most complex Starship test flight to date. Previous tests involving Starhopper, SN5, and SN6, only reached a maximum altitude of 500 feet, and were relatively primitive compared to SN8, which was the first test vehicle to feature a nose cone and working flaps.
Musk and team already appears to be moving fast on gathering data from this test flight for future iterations of Starship. SN9 is already nearly complete in the high bay facility and Musk has even mentioned on Twitter that big changes are already in mind for test vehicles as far out as SN15.
The test comes following a 24-hour delay incurred when, at T-minus 1 second, an abort was triggered by the vehicles Methane-fueled Raptor engines.
Today’s flight was almost delayed an additional 24 hours when, late in the count, a hold was called and the vehicle was rapidly depressurized of its cryogenic fuel. Ultimately, enough time remained in the launch window for a full refueling and the test proceeded with only minutes to spare.
Starship and its booster “Super Heavy” are ultimately planned to bring large quantities of cargo and passengers to destinations in low earth orbit, the Moon, and ultimately Mars.
Once in final production and out of the prototype phase, the massive launch system will likely replace Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy once their operational lifespans are deemed obsolete by SpaceX and may even jockey with SLS for the task of taking NASA to the moon and beyond.
Video courtesy of SpaceX
Nicholas D'Alessandro was born and raised in Southwest Florida. The seeds of his interest in Space Exploration were planted when the Shuttle's sonic boom upon re-entry would reverberate through his childhood home even across the state; the knowledge that a real life spacecraft was passing overhead and could have that effect was fascinating to him. A middle school field trip to the Kennedy Space Center cemented that fascination, and with an additional interest in the bleeding edge of automotive technology and Teslas, it was the story of Elon Musk's path to Cape Canaveral with SpaceX that finally led Nicholas to move to the Space Coast and, after joining Spaceflight Insider in 2020, begin documenting the dawning era of commercial spaceflight.