Starship ‘SN5’ takes flight as SpaceX marches forward
For the second time in just three days, SpaceX has succeeded in showcasing their team’s capabilities and readiness to redefine the future of commercial space travel. Earlier today, August 4, 2020, the company completed a test flight of its Starship prototype vehicle, dubbed SN5, ‘hopping’ to an altitude of 150 meters above its rocket development facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The flight attempt was initially scheduled for August 3, however a last minute technical issue encroached on the company’s ability to fly within the allotted temporary flight restriction, forcing a second attempt the next day.
For those who may not be following SpaceX’s recent developments, Starship is the company’s latest concept for an interplanetary launch and landing vehicle. Conceptually designed to fly up to 100 people, Starship aims to accomplish Elon Musk’s ultimate goal of allowing humans to become a multi-planetary species. SpaceX is working from a build-and-test facility on South Padre Island in Boca Chica, Texas, where engineers work around the clock to design, fabricate, and test different components of Starship. The first proof of concept vehicle known affectionately as “Starhopper” was tested in 2019, allowing the company to hone in on conceptual designs as well as seeing how they would, quite literally, fly. In addition to testing the conceptual Starship design, Starhopper was also used to test the new engine SpaceX will use to power the behemoth vehicle, known as the Raptor.
As the designs for the vehicle adapted and improved over the following year, SpaceX began building test articles resembling stainless steel grain silos that were used to test vehicle pressurization and structural integrity as they were filled with cryogenic rocket propellant. A key difference in the SpaceX approach to engineering, relative to other aerospace companies, is that they will typically build quickly and test their early concept pieces to failure, incorporating lessons learned and data during the next-version redesign, rather than spending years on a design before building. With this approach in mind, the company has experienced its fair share of failures while designing their advanced launch vehicles. SN5, or the Starship test concept vehicle Serial Number 5, is the first flight worthy test article for Starship with the updated Starship design.
Today’s flight of SN5 not only proved that the vehicle is flight worthy, but that the new Raptor engine is capable of thrust-vector control, a requirement for the future operational version of Starship. This test also tested the gravity-operated landing legs of the Starship vehicle as it gently touched down on a target separate from the launch site.
To give an idea of how today’s flight has the potential to lead Starship from being conceptual to operational, the first flight tests of SpaceX’s “Grasshopper” test vehicles were a proof of concept of thrust vectoring in order to guide a first stage booster back to a launch or landing site. The flight tests of those vehicles, begun in 2012, showcased the technology which would lead SpaceX to begin regularly recovering their Falcon 9 boosters; they have performed almost 60 successful booster returns so far. With the degree of apparent success in today’s flight, SpaceX has proven key elements of their design, and are sure to only improve on that over the next few years. Starship is leading the way toward making life multiplanetary.
Having a life-long interest in crewed space flight, Desforges’ passion materialized on a family vacation in 1999 when he was able see the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery on STS-96. Since then, Desforges has been an enthusiast of space exploration efforts. He lived in Orlando, Florida for a year, during which time he had the opportunity to witness the flights of the historic CRS-4 and EFT-1 missions in person at Cape Canaveral. He earned his Private Pilot Certificate in 2017, holds a degree in Aviation Management, and currently works as an Operations Analyst in the aviation industry in Georgia.