BOCA CHICA BEACH, Texas—It flew. It really did. On Thursday night, SpaceX’s stainless steel Starship prototype took to the skies for the first time.
It was a beautiful night for Starhopper’s debut. In the wake of a rare mid-summer front, temperatures in South Texas fell below their sultry averages for late July, with somewhat drier air. By 10:45pm local time, a mostly cloudy sky had broken into a mostly clear night along the coast. So when Starhopper leaped into the skies, it did so beneath the stars—toward the stars.
Never before had SpaceX taken this stubby, cobbled-together spacecraft off its leash. Never before had the company’s next-generation Raptor rocket engine flown free. And so as the engine roared to life Thursday night, no one wearing a SpaceX badge was quite sure what would happen when they set Starhopper free.
It made for nervous moments at the roadside, about two kilometers from the launch pad. The launch lit up the night sky, first with fire, and then smoke. Soon, the prodigious amount of smoke produced by the Raptor engine obscured the vehicle. Was it moving? We couldn’t tell. Eventually, the smoke cleared, and the vehicle had moved. How high had it gone was not immediately clear, perhaps 20 or 30 meters, but company founder Elon Musk declared the flight a success.
For locals here, the moment had considerable weight. Nearly a decade ago, they had watched as SpaceX had come into the mostly poor border community, asking questions and touring the low-lying scrubland at the end of Boca Chica Highway. Then, after the state of Texas and SpaceX announced an agreement to build a launch facility five years ago, only very slowly did the California company start to build facilities. For a long time, people in South Texas have watched, and waited. On Thursday night, they finally saw something leave the ground.
For SpaceX employees, too, the momentary flight offered validation. For years, hundreds of the company’s smartest engineers have worked on Starship, the spacecraft that may one day fly humans to Mars. NASA isn’t paying SpaceX to build Starship. Rather, the extraordinary amount of time and money being put into Starship by SpaceX and the company’s investors represents a huge bet on their talent—and its capacity to build the kinds of spaceships that no one has built before.
But it is one thing to draw up a vehicle on a white board, or on a computer. It is quite another thing to cut metal, to bring a vehicle into existence, and then finally to fly the vehicle. And so they hastily built Starhopper out of sheets of stainless steel. Finally, on Thursday night, they lit the candle and held their collective breaths.
This marked the first time SpaceX’s Starhopper vehicle has flown untethered. In early April, the hopper made two short, tethered “hops” of less than 1 meter off the launch pad. On July 16, after modifying the vehicle for additional testing, the company performed a five-second, full-duration static fire of the hopper’s single Raptor engine. About four minutes later, however, a secondary fireball briefly engulfed the engine and vehicle. Although this looked dramatic, the Starship prototype did not sustain significant damage.
Since then, the company had been working toward Thursday evening’s test.
About three kilometers down Boca Chica Highway from the Starhopper launch site, SpaceX employees are busy working on Starship Mk 1, a more advanced prototype with similar dimensions to the actual Starship. Even after the “hop” test late Thursday, the spotlights were on at the build site, and the sounds of grinders and other machines could be heard. And so it goes every night.
At present, the vehicle in Texas is broken into two pieces. The top half includes the vehicle’s nose cone, and the aft section is composed of barrels that make up the fuselage. More barrels will be added, and then in the coming weeks the two sections will be mated. Musk has said the company intends to fly this Mk 1 vehicle within two or three months, with the goal of reaching an altitude of 20 or 30km later this year. It is not clear whether this orbital prototype will fly with three or six Raptor engines.
Halfway across the country, in Cocoa, Florida, another team of SpaceX engineers is working on a Starship Mk 2 vehicle, with similar goals to the Texas vehicle. The two teams are both competing, in that they’re trying different designs to solve the same challenges but are also collaborating by sharing ideas and solutions. Competition drives innovation, and faster development.
The goal of developing these orbital prototypes, in turn, is to finalize the design for an orbital test vehicle, which will be powered by six Raptor engines. It is possible that SpaceX could fly this orbital test vehicle as soon as next year, Musk has said. Like most aerospace schedules, this date is probably more aspirational than realistic.
But there can be no denying the frenzied activity in South Texas to try and make this happen. So much work remains before SpaceX and its ambitions to build the world’s largest rocket and most capable spaceship. Yet already, they have come so far.
Sources: • ArsTechnica
Featured Image: ArsTechnica