On the afternoon of May 5, 2021, at 5:24 p.m. local time, SpaceX made its fifth attempt at a high altitude test flight and soft landing with a Starship prototype. Given the results of the previous test, many people were on the edge of their seats at this event. In all four attempts, the prototypes managed to reach their maximum altitude and perform the bellyflop maneuver, but then exploded during (or shortly after) landing.
Would the fifteenth iteration of the Starship prototype (SN15) succeed where the others had failed? From 5:30 p.m. local time (6:30 p.m. EDT; 3:30 p.m. PDT) the answer to this question is “WITH GUSTO!” On its fifth attempt, the SN15 not only managed to reach its target altitude of 10 km and abort the belly flop and controlled descent, but it also stuck the landing and suffered no breakdowns afterwards.
In other words, COMPLETE SUCCESS!
Given that SpaceX’s future depends on the success of the Starship and Super Heavy launch systems, this is certainly good news. This goes beyond replacing the Falcon family of missiles with starships to carry everything from crews and cargo to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It also includes SpaceX’s hopes of fulfilling its recently awarded contract with NASA to develop a reusable lunar lander.
The flight began at 5:24:10 p.m. CDT (6:24:10 p.m. EDT; 3:24:10 p.m. PDT) under foggy conditions, similar to the SN11 flight a few weeks ago. As in all previous cases, the spaceship reached its climax, switched off its three Raptor engines (one at a time) and then reoriented itself for its descent (the “belly flop” maneuver). This time, however, the spaceship had no problems as it restarted two of its Raptor engines and drove the last few meters down.
Then, 6 minutes and 8 seconds after take-off, the SN15 landed on the landing pad and remained unharmed. In the first two attempts, the prototypes SN8 and SN9 were too hot or turned too much and exploded on landing. During the third, the SN10 suffered a slight malfunction with its landing legs that caused it to land too hard on one side, resulting in a propellant leak that triggered a fire and explosion.
Then there was the soaring SN11, which exploded on the descent and rained debris all over the landing site. That brought the total to four explosions in less than four months, which Blue Origin and Dynetics were sure to mention when filing complaints with NASA. You see, between all of these tests, SpaceX won a lucrative $ 2.9 billion contract to develop a Human Landing System (HLS) for NASA.
As part of the Artemis program, SpaceX was one of three companies vying for the right to build the lander that will transport the Artemis III astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024 – the others are Blue Origin and Dynetics. For their proposal, SpaceX offered a modified version of the spaceship that would carry a crew of six astronauts from the earth to the moon and enable EVAs on the surface.
Shortly after NASA awarded SpaceX the contract for Option A, the two companies filed complaints with NASA pointing out insufficient advice. As Dynetics noted more than once in the 61-page complaint it filed with the Government Accountability Office (co-signed by Blue Origin), NASA stated in the original call to work to promote a competitive environment.
This included the selection of two candidates for an Option A contract, which NASA ultimately declined, citing budget constraints and planning problems. In addition, the Dynetics legal team drew attention to the “high and unacceptable risk” involved in the SpaceX approach. In case there was any confusion about what they were getting into, Dynetics put this in their complaint:
“[T]The source selection statement makes no mention, let alone the inherent risks associated with the fact that four SpaceX Starship prototypes have exploded in the last four months alone. Landing humans on the moon requires a great deal of space systems engineering to identify and mitigate the inherent and significant risks of human space travel, and NASA has provided SpaceX with evidence of the proven lack of such systems engineering. “
In conclusion, both Blue Origin and Dynetics complained that NASA did not give them advance notice that they would only be working with one contractor. Second, they felt the contractor should have a better safety record that doesn’t include exploding prototypes. While legal matters are generally not known to be kind and gentle, the nature of the Dynetics complaint feels a bit jagged.
Perhaps Musk’s impotence joke directed against Bezos had something to do with it. Separately, NASA issued a statement last week through an official spokesperson: “In accordance with the GAO protests, NASA directed SpaceX that progress on the Human Landing System (HLS) contract be suspended pending GAO any pending litigation related to it has settled with this procurement. ”
This successful test of the SN15 is therefore a double blow. On the one hand, it brings SpaceX closer to creating a fully reusable heavy-duty launch system that can make regular trips to orbit, the moon, Mars, and (someday) beyond. On the other hand, SpaceX’s participation in the Artemis program is being questioned in part because of its track record and failures with the Starship prototypes.
By demonstrating that their system can safely and effectively perform all major maneuvers, SpaceX has undermined the challenge of competition. There is no way to know if this will affect NASA’s decision regarding their work interruption order they submitted to HLS. But for SpaceX and Musk, it has to feel like the icing on the cake, which has already been a huge win for the company.
All in all, it must feel pretty good to be Elon Musk now!
Further reading: SpaceX