SpaceX is getting ready to launch its fifth high-flying Starship from its Texas rocket facilities this week.
Unlike its predecessors, this particular mega-spaceship is a relative of NASA’s next moon lander – the vehicle that will put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
Starship serial No. 11, or SN15, is the latest of a series of Starship prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to six 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 SN15 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, though.
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 mid-air as it re-lit 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, 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.”
Nailing the landing is even more critical now that NASA has chosen Starship to land its next astronauts on the moon.
The agency announced on Friday that it’s working with SpaceX to turn Starship into the lunar lander that will jumpstart 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.
On SpaceX’s end, a major step toward the moon will be flying and landing Starships here on Earth – without blowing them up.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has ambitions beyond the lunar surface, though. Ultimately, he has said, he plans to build 1,000 Starships that carry people and cargo to Mars and establish a settlement there.
Musk said Thursday on Twitter that the company was aiming to launch SN15 sometime this week. Government clearances indicate that Tuesday and Wednesday might offer flight opportunities.
The Federal Aviation Administration has issued airspace-closure notices for the area from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. CT on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The Cameron County judge has also issued local road closures – another requirement for launch – from noon to 8 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday.
How to watch Starship’s flight live
As of Monday afternoon, SN15 was upright on the Boca Chica launchpad. During the test flight, SpaceX will likely livestream from that site and from cameras inside the rocket’s skirt, where the engines are located.
The up-close cameras have provided stunning footage of past Starship flights, like the below footage of SN9. (We’ll embed SpaceX’s live feed below once it’s available.)
In the meantime, a few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company are broadcasting live from Boca Chica.
NASASpaceflight broadcasters will likely cover a critical “static fire” engine test that SpaceX must conduct ahead of launch, anchoring SN15 to the launchpad and igniting its engines. It’s unclear when that will happen, but the earliest opportunity is Tuesday.
LabPadre, a YouTube channel from Louis Balderas, a Texas resident 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.