While the test flight of the Starship SN8 is still fresh in the memories, its successor, the SN9, took off on Tuesday before also missing the landing. But let’s face it: what SpaceX is trying to do is unprecedented and incredibly difficult.
SpaceX’s Starship prototype SN9 took off successfully on Tuesday, February 2, over South Texas. After having reached an altitude of ten kilometers, the vessel then began its descent “belly forward” so as to be able to purge its speed. He then relied on his reaction control thrusters so as to return to the vertical position to prepare for the landing, again missed.
Seven weeks have passed since the flight of its predecessor, the SN8. However, the SN9 suffered a similar fate. It appeared that one of the two Raptor engines intended for the controlled final descent failed to reignite (see a great view in slow motion). As a result, the vehicle was unable to reorient into an upright position. But can we really call it a failure? Absolutely not.
“One of the greatest breakthroughs in human history”
It is indeed necessary to take a step back to fully understand what SpaceX is trying to do with its Starship: unheard of.
With its Falcon 9 program, SpaceX has demonstrated its ability to launch and land a rocket, yes, but the Starship is something else. It’s an orbital ship, not a launcher. The Starship will not “simply” need to fire its engines for eight minutes and then fall back into the ocean. It will have to be able to restart its engines several times, to survive for weeks or even months in space, but also to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere with minimal effects to ensure rapid reuse.
As Elon Musk said a few months ago to his teams at a meeting attended by journalist Eric Berger, from Ars Technica : “It is stupidly difficult to develop a fully reusable orbital system. It would be one of the greatest breakthroughs in human history ”.
So it’s essential to understand that what Musk asks of his engineers is damn hard, but they have no choice but to take on this challenge.
SpaceX is giving itself the means to succeed with its plant in Boca Chica, in South Texas. The company can now build and launch these stainless steel ships at a breakneck pace, allowing Musk to view failure more as an option. That’s not to say that SpaceX teams are “thrilled” with these last two crashes, of course. On the other hand, this plant and this iterative design program – each new vehicle improves on its previous model – makes it easier and faster to pass to subsequent tests.
Also this last test of the SN9, once again spectacular, will allow engineers to collect as much data as possible to start the following test campaign, with the SN10 already positioned on its pad.
So yes, SpaceX still has a long way to go before the Starship is fully operational, but let’s not forget that the company and its engineers are making aerospace history once again.