Starship SN15 landing

SpaceX achieves first successful Starship test flight and landing

Image credit: REUTERS/Gene Blevins

Elon Musk’s SpaceX has achieved its first successful launch and touchdown of its prototype next-generation Starship rocket, while Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has announced it will launch its first suborbital space sightseeing trip in July.

The Starship system is designed to be a fully reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle composed of a booster stage ('Super Heavy') and a 50m-long second stage ('Starship'), which is intended for long-distance space travel, with a view towards ultimately carrying humans and cargo to Mars.

This week, SpaceX achieved the first successful touchdown of the Starship rocket SN15 during a test flight at the SpaceX facility near Boca Chica, Texas.

The rocket – which is equipped with three methane-burning engines – reached its maximum planned altitude of 10km, hovering momentarily before dropping to the surface controlled by flaps on the ends of the vehicle. It manoeuvred itself into a vertical position as it approached the ground and achieved a soft touchdown on its landing pad.

It was the fifth landing attempt involving this particular prototype; the previous attempts (SN8 in December 2020, SN9 in February, SN10 and SN11 in March) have all ended in explosions. The SN15 landing was followed with the deployment of an automated fire-suppression mechanism to extinguish flames which continued to burn at the base of the rocket.

During the flight, SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker provided a commentary, saying: “We are down, the Starship has landed.” Meanwhile, Musk wrote on Twitter: “Starship landing nominal!”

The complete Starship rocket will be 9m in diameter and 120m in length when combined with its booster stage. It is expected to replace SpaceX’s heavy-lift Falcon rockets, which are used regularly to carry out missions on behalf of Nasa and other clients.

Musk aims to complete an orbital Starship flight during 2021 and to take Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa on a pleasure trip around the Moon using a Starship in 2023.

Nasa has chosen a modified Starship system as a potential lunar landing vehicle ('Human Landing System') for its ambitious Artemis program, awarding SpaceX a $2.9bn contract to develop the technology. Blue Origin, which is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, is protesting Nasa’s decision to award SpaceX the contract. SpaceX had been competing with Blue Origin and Dynetics to design affordable lunar landers.

Blue Origin announced this week that it will launch its first suborbital sightseeing flight on 20 July 2021, using its reusable 'New Shepard' spacecraft. The New Shepard system is intended to carry a crew of six more than 100km above the surface of the Earth, which is high enough to see the curvature of the planet through observation windows and experience several minutes of weightlessness.

According to a Reuters report from 2018, Blue Origin will charge at least $200,000 per passenger for a suborbital ride. Virgin Galactic, which is competing with Blue Origin in the nascent space tourism sector, will charge more than $250,000 for reservations.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles