SpaceX is often lauded for having its whole operation in South Texas on display. Despite this, there are regular calls for a proper “Starship update” presentation. The last “Starship update” was in 2019, and to say the program has progressed a lot since then would be a gross understatement. Let’s take a look at the program’s development since 2019.
The previous Starship presentation took place on September 28, 2019 down in Starbase. Just a month prior to that, SpaceX launched the Starhopper prototype on a 150 Meter hop test. We are going to focus only on the major Starship events here, as trying to cover every static fire or cryo-proof would be both obnoxiously long and repetitive.
SN5 150 Meter hop
SN5 was SpaceX’s first full size Starship prototype to go on a test flight. The vehicle went on a short 150 meter hop on August 4, 2020, flying up off the launch mount and returning to land on the nearby landing pad. The test was a success, flying on its one raptor engine, though SN5 looked nothing like the Starship we know today. Those down in Boca Chica at the time definitely earned the title “Texas tank watchers.”
SN6 150 Meter hop
On September 3, 2020, SpaceX’s SN6 prototype took flight, following in SN5 flight path. While from the outside the flight differed very little from SN5’s, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to note that SN6’s flight was a “much smoother and faster operation.”
SN8 high altitude test flight
This first of five high-altitude test flights so far, on December 9, 2020, SN8 took to the sky, flying roughly 12.5km up. The three raptor engines ignited and carried the prototype ship up, performing a phased shutdown and then turning the ship to perform a bellyflop maneuver.
This maneuver orients the ship on its side, using the flaps to control its angle. This was an impressive-looking launch, but when the engines reignited to re-orient the ship for landing it was clear something was wrong.
You may be familiar with the terms “fuel-rich” or “oxygen-rich” combustion, but these two raptor engines were running “engine-rich.” Low header-tank pressure meant the engines couldn’t get up to thrust, so SN8 slammed into the ground in a brilliant fireball.
SN9 high altitude test flight
Just two months later, on February 2, 2021, SpaceX was back again for another high altitude test flight. SN9 flew through a similar path that SN8 did, but when the engines reignited – well, only one successfully did so. SN9 went back to vertical and then beyond it, unable to correct the orientation of the ship, and slammed into the ground with significant velocity. While Starship could successfully land on two engines, having one go out wasn’t an option, so the company has since opted to reignite three engines so it can handle one failing.
SN10 high altitude test flight
SN10 was a glorious test. SpaceX took what it learned from the previous two high-altitude tests and implemented that into the prototype. On March 3, 2021, hardly a month after SN9’s launch, a big stainless steel prototype to the skies once again. After its successful flight to 10km, Starship reignited its three engines, reoriented itself, and had a “successful soft touchdown on the landing pad”… if the SpaceX webcast was to be believed.
Anyone who only followed SpaceX’s stream would be disappointed to learn that a few minutes after the companies abrupt end to the live stream, and following flames being seen from the base of the vehicle, SN10 exploded into a brilliant fireball.
Check out Cosmic Perspective’s awesome slow-motion video of the landing and explosion:
SN11 high altitude test flight
Did SN11 ever fly? Well, no eyewitness can confirm, but SpaceX’s on-board video and the debris strewn across South Texas on March 30seem to indicate “yes, it did.” It was a terribly foggy day. Nobody could see the rocket and even SpaceX’s on-pad cameras had limited visibility. Nobody thought the company would actually launch, so everyone was surprised when they did.
The rocket launched but never landed, or, rather, it landed many times, in very small pieces, all over the place. SN11 made it less far than any of the previous high-altitude test flights, as a methane leak and fire destroyed some of the avionics.
SN-15 Successful high altitude test flight
And then SN15. Jumping straight from SN11 to SN15, SpaceX conducted another high-altitude test flight on May 5, 2021. Continuing to improve each prototype, and with a larger patch of heat shield tiles to test out, SN15 flew to 10km, bellyflopped down, reignites its engines, reoriented, and successfully landed. While watchers were no doubt still nervous after SN10’s debacle (I know I was), SN15 stayed in place following the launch, no delayed explosion.
First Starship Superheavy stack
The company hoped to launch Starship on its first orbital flight in July… so I’d say the crew was slightly optimistic…
But on August 6, 2021, SpaceX conducted the first full stack of Starship, with booster 4 on the launch mount and Starship 20 mounted on top of it.
I’d say Elon’s “2 weeks” statement here was another overly optimistic timeline. SpaceX still hasn’t received environmental approval for an orbital launch from Boca Chica.
There are numerous other things that have occured in this period, too many to list, but now lets look at today.
Second Starship Superheavy stack
In preparation for tonights presentation, SpaceX has completed the second full stack of Starship on top of the booster. Rather than using cranes like last time, the company used “mechzilla,” the massive orbital launch tower that will be responsible for catching the returning rocket sections.
Stay tuned for tonight, February 10, at 9 p.m. ET as Elon Musk takes to the stage for the Starship update. In the meantime, you can read out expectations for tonights presentation. Keep monitoring SpaceExplored.com, where we’ll have live updates on of the even as it happens, including on-site reporters.