I ranted and raved enthusiastically here when SpaceX first landed a Falcon 9 first stage booster on a barge, something I thought was insane to even try when I first heard of it, and I’m a space cadet with a science & engineering background. Obviously I needed to be thinking bigger, since not only did they prove it can be done, they now do it regularly and almost routinely. (Another launch scheduled for Saturday afternoon, a SiriusXM satellite.) They’ve now had 68 successful booster recoveries and one booster has been launched 7 times already.
But they’re going to retire the Falcon 9 sooner rather than later because they’re building Starship, a two stage monstrosity that will be bigger than NASA’s old Saturn V rocket. The first stage (Super Heavy) will fly back and land like the Falcon 9 does and the second (Starship) will go to orbit, the ISS, the moon, Mars, beyond (literally) and then re-enter the atmosphere like a cross between the Space Shuttle and a space capsule, landing upright like the Falcon 9 first stage does. To be used again, and again, and again…
Today they had the first really big test flight of a full-size, early design of the Starship. SN8 is the 8th Starship test vehicle to be built, and it was scheduled to take off, fly to about 44,000 feet, cut off its engines, flip over onto its belly to coast and glide and slow down, switch fuel tanks, at the last second (and I didn’t realize just how much “last second” meant “LAST FREAKIN’ SECOND” until I saw them do it) relight the engines and flip back up to an upright position, and land gently upright. Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, gave it no better than a 1 in 3 chance of success. Most everyone at SpaceX would have been perfectly happy if it had lifted off and gotten to 44,000 feet before blowing up or spinning out of control. That would have been wonderful for a first test flight.
It. Was. Amazing!
(video from SpaceX – it’s a long video since there was a scrub and a re-set in there, so go to the 1:47:53 mark for the launch if it doesn’t go there automatically)
Take off with no explosion! ✅
Throttle back one engine, then a second one, to keep the loads on the vehicle in range ✅ (Those of us not on the inside at SpaceX didn’t know it was supposed to happen so it looked like a problem, but it was going just as planned.)
Reach 44,000 feet, shut down the engines, flip over onto our belly without going out of control. ✅ ✅ ✅
Maintain perfect control gliding back down toward not just the planet, but the precise point on the planet where the landing pad is! ✅
Perform that engine restart and flip back up to vertical thing! ✅ (They’re calling that maneuver the “Crazy Elon.” If you’ve watched “Hunt For Red October,” you’ll know why.)
Get vertical, get down right onto the landing pad, land upright… ✅ ✅ ✅
…way, way to freaking fast and end in a gigantic explosion ❌❌❌🚀💥💥💥😥
It was a test flight with minimal expectations and maximum hopes. We got much closer to the maximum than the minimum. And that’s how we get that much closer to doing it all next time. They’re already building SN9 through SN15, as well as the first Super Heavy, SH1.
I may yet get the chance to get this creaky, flabby butt of mine off the planet.
Finally, if you want to know just how insane that final “Crazy Elon” move is and just how “last minute” that flip is, watch this video that SpaceX released late tonight from a camera very near the landing pad, looking straight up at the incoming SN8.