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The next Starship test flight is coming very soon

Published Apr 27th, 2021 11:27PM EDT
starship sn15
Image: Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP

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SpaceX is doing great. It’s continuing its agreements with NASA, regularly launching more and more of its own Starlink satellites, and routinely sending its reusable rocket stages back into the sky. All of SpaceX’s projects are moving along better than most would have anticipated. Well, almost all of them. The one SpaceX program that has been giving the company trouble — and producing the most high-profile “failures” along the way — is Starship. Thankfully, the company won’t have to wait long to attempt to impress us all again.

SpaceX recently completed a static fire of its SN15 Starship, clearing the way for a flight test that might produce the first successful landing. The company’s most recent Starship launches have been plagued with issues during the landing phase, with many of the rockets exploding once they hit the ground and sometimes even before. We’ll likely get to see another attempt this week.

Building an entirely new kind of spacecraft isn’t easy, and SpaceX knows that better than most. The company failed many times in its attempts to land its Falcon 9 rocket before eventually nailing it. Today, the rockets land reliably just about every single time, and the company has been able to reuse those boosters over and over again.

Starship is still in the midst of those growing pains, with multiple explosions and only one landing attempt where the spacecraft completed its landing maneuver and actually touched down. Unfortunately, it broke a bunch of stuff when it did and eventually a methane leak led to an explosion, destroying the prototype.

The thing that makes the Starship so hard to land is its orientation as it returns to solid ground. The ship basically belly-flops after it reaches its peak, drifting back down to Earth on its side. Once it gets close to the landing zone it performs a “kick” maneuver where the engines fire up and attempt to swing the spacecraft into the correct bottom-down orientation and line it up for a soft touchdown. Only one launch so far has resulted in a successful kick maneuver, and it was the one that ended with the methane explosion.

It looks super cool when Starship gets it right, but it’s also a very tricky maneuver to perfect. SpaceX will eventually get it right, but it remains to be seen whether it can do so with enough reliability to ensure that Starships aren’t regularly lost. The company has a history of making hard things eventually look easy, but it also isn’t shy about moving away from things that don’t work, such as the decision to abandon attempts to catch its rocket fairings.

We don’t know for sure what day SpaceX is targeting for the launch of the Starship prototype SN15, but it shouldn’t be long before we find out.

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