MAY 6, 2020–After trial and tribulation, SpaceX’s Starship development program in Southern Texas finally seems to be back on track.
Last September, SpaceX showed off their “Starship MK1” prototype to the world. Ambitions were high, with this vehicle being prepped for a 20-kilometer test flight. This seemed to be a logical next step for SpaceX’s Starship development program, as they had just flown their “Starhopper” test article 150 meters a few months earlier.
However, hopes plummeted quickly in November. During a test where the vehicle was undergoing pressurization to verify it could hold propellant, it faced an explosive failure of the bulkheads. MK1 was not salvageable and all work on MK2, MK1’s sister in Cocoa, Florida, was canceled.
SpaceX, realizing that a 20-kilometer flight test would be unachievable with their current tooling and construction methods, began work on overhauling their facilities in Boca Chica and started construction on a much tamer test article. Starship Serial Number 1 (SN1).
The team in Boca Chica then began by building two different sub-scale test tanks to verify their construction methods before officially beginning construction on SN1, which was supposed to perform several static fire tests for further verification.
However, Starship SN1 failed to prove its ability to hold propellant. It took them until their 5th full-scale test article (SN4) to get past that point. This marked a standstill in their testing campaign that lasted about 5 months, as they were unable to perform any of their planned static fires or flight tests.
But things are starting to look up.
Two weeks ago SpaceX rolled out their newest test article, SN4, to the test stand. It has since outperformed all of its predecessors. It not only verified that it could hold pressurized cryogenic propellant, but it also performed several Raptor engine tests. This included various spin-up and pre-burner tests that were done throughout the week, but most importantly, it included a full-blown static fire which was done last night.
So what’s next for Starship?
The near term goal is for SpaceX to perform a 150 meter flight, similar to Starhopper’s, with SN4 to verify every system before they move on to the more dramatic test flights they were once pursuing.
Information is somewhat limited surrounding SN4’s future, but it seems that the 150-meter “hop” is the only test flight planned for SN4. Anything after that would most likely be done by SpaceX’s next prototype, SN5, which will receive a nosecone.
SpaceX recently pursued a license with the FCC to “authorize Starship medium-altitude demonstration test vehicle communications for SpaceX Mission 1584 from the Boca Chica launch pad, prelaunch tests, and the experimental recovery following the suborbital launch” for altitudes less than two kilometers. This leads us to believe that SpaceX intends to fly SN5 on a two-kilometer, or less, flight test in the near future.
Article by Matt M.