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's a beautiful night for Star Hopper's debut. In the wake of a rare mid-summer front, temperatures in South Texas hide below their sultry averages for late July, with somewhat drier air. By 10:45 am local time, a mostly cloudy sky has broken down 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. This is the engine roared to life.
It's about two miles 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. What it is moving? We could not tell. Eventually, the smoke cleared, and the vehicle had moved. Elon Musk declared the flight a success.
And the test was a success. Raptor breathe fire, but they could not control the complex engine enough to ascend, hover, move a short distance horizontally, and then safely return to the surface.
A key moment
For locals here , the moment had significant 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. 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, many of the company's smartest engineers have worked on Starship, the spacecraft that may one day fly humans to Mars. NASA is not paying SpaceX to build Starship. Starship by SpaceX and the company's investors represents a huge bet on their talent and its capacity to build.
But it is one thing to draw 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 have been built out of sheets of stainless steel. Finally, on Thursday night, they released the candle and their collective breaths.
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, the vehicle performs 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.
About 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 the 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 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 will be ready to fly this Mk 1 vehicle within two or three months, with the goal of reaching 20 or 30km later this year.
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 are trying different designs to solve the same challenges. Competition drives innovation and faster development.
The goal of developing orbital prototypes, in turn, is to finalize the design for an orbital test vehicle, which is powered by six Raptor engines. It's 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.
SpaceX and its ambitions to build the world's largest rocket and most capable spaceship. Yet already, they have come so far.
Listing image by Trevor Mahlmann for Ars Technica