SpaceX is getting ready to launch its fifth high-flying Starship from its Texas rocket facilities as soon as Wednesday.
A version of this mega-spaceship is set to become NASA’s next moon lander, the vehicle that could put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
Starship Serial No. 15, or SN15, is the latest of a series of Starship prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to 6 miles above Boca Chica, Texas.
As SN15 approaches the peak of its flight, it should shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one. Then the spaceship should tip sideways and plunge back to Earth, using four wing flaps to control its fall.
As it nears the ground, SN15 should reignite its engines to flip itself upright again and gently lower to the landing pad. This is where its predecessors have failed.
The first two prototypes that soared to high altitude, SN8 and SN9, slammed into the landing pad at high speed and exploded immediately. The third, SN10, landed in one piece but blew up 10 minutes later. The fourth, SN11, exploded in midair as it relit its engines for landing.
For SpaceX, explosions during rocket development are par for the course.
“They use a different development philosophy than the government does, which is: Fly. If something goes wrong, they try to fix it. Fly again. If something else goes wrong, they try to fix that,” John Logsdon, the founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider after the fourth Starship explosion. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”
But, he added, “the fact that they’ve had these early development-program problems means that there will have to be a record of success before anybody except an extreme risk-taker is willing to get aboard.”
Success may be even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.
The agency announced on April 16 that it was working with SpaceX to turn Starship into the lunar lander that will jump-start its Artemis program, which aims to establish a permanent human presence on the moon. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship there in 2024, but a new report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General found that it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet this deadline.
SpaceX’s founder and CEO, Elon Musk, has ambitions beyond the lunar surface. Musk has said he plans to build 1,000 Starships that carry people and cargo to Mars. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a settlement there. Flying Starships to orbit would be a major step toward that goal. For now, though, SpaceX is trying to land the prototypes without blowing them up.
Musk said last week that Starship could fly its first humans “in a couple years.”
“Obviously we need to, like, not be making craters,” Musk added, referring to the explosions, during a NASA press conference on Friday. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re making rapid progress.”
Government clearances indicate that SN15 could launch on Wednesday. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued an airspace-closure notice for the area that day. A Cameron County judge has also issued a local road closure from noon to 8 p.m. CT, indicating that SpaceX may launch in that window.
Airspace and road closures are both required for launch. They can change day-to-day depending on SpaceX’s plans and the FAA’s launch-licensing procedure, so the launch window could change.
How to watch Starship’s flight live
During the test flight, SpaceX is likely to stream live from the launchpad and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are. (We’ll embed SpaceX’s live feed below once it’s available.)
The up-close cameras have provided stunning footage of past Starship flights, like the below footage of SN9.
In the meantime, a few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company are broadcasting live from Boca Chica.
LabPadre, a YouTube channel from Louis Balderas, who lives just across the bay from Boca Chica, offers six unique views of the Starship launch site. Below is the channel’s main 4K-resolution feed.
For a more distant view of the launch site — broadcast from the top of a hotel resort in South Padre Island about 6 miles away — check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.
NASASpaceflight offers broadcasts with multiple high-quality camera views and input from a group of knowledgeable commentators. Their livestream will be embedded here once it’s available.
This post has been updated with new information. It was originally published on Monday, April 19, 2021.