On May 5th, 2021, at 05:24 PM 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 prior test, this event had many individuals on the edge of their seats. In all four efforts, the prototypes were able to reach their highest possible elevation and pull off the bellyflop move but then exploded during landing (or shortly afterward).
As of 05:30 P.M. local time (06:30 P.M. EDT; 03:30 P.M. PDT), the response to that question is, “WITH GUSTO! it stuck the landing and endured no accidents afterward.
In other words, COMPLETE SUCCESS!
Given just how much of SpaceX’s future hinges on the achievement of the Starship and Super Heavy launch method, this is certainly very good news. This goes beyond replacing their Falcon rocket family with Starships to transfer everything from cargo and crews to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), in addition, it includes SpaceX’s hopes to fulfill a recently-awarded contract from NASA.
The flight started at 05:24:10 P.M. CDT (06:24:10 P.M. EDT; 03:24:10 P.M. PDT) amid foggy conditions, very similar to what the SN11 flight undergone a couple of weeks ago. As in all previous cases, that the Starship attained its apogee, closed down its three Raptor motors (one by one), and then reoriented itself to get its own descent (the”belly-flop” maneuver). However, this time around, the Starship experienced no problems because it reignited just two of its Raptor engines and descended the last couple of meters.
Then, 6 minutes and 8 seconds after launch, the SN15 touched down on the landing pad and emerged unscathed. From the first two efforts, the SN8 and SN9 prototypes came in too sexy or over-rotated and exploded upon landing. Throughout the third, the SN10 suffered a slight malfunction with its landing legs that caused it to property too difficult on one side, which caused a propellant leak that triggered a fire and an explosion.
Subsequently, there was the SN11 high-altitude flight which exploded while descending, raining debris all over the landing pad. This brought the total to four explosions in less than four weeks, something that Blue Origin and Dynetics were sure to mention when submitting complaints with NASA. You see, in between all this testing, SpaceX had been awarded a lucrative contract worth $2.9 billion to create an Individual Genome System (HLS) for NASA.
As a portion of this Artemis Program, SpaceX was among 3 companies competing to procure the best to construct the lander which will transport the Artemis III astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024 — the others being Blue Origin and Dynetics. For their proposition, SpaceX provided a modified version of the Starship that could take a crew of six astronauts all of the way from Earth to the Moon and let EVAs in the surface.
Soon after NASA awarded the Choice A contract to SpaceX, both firms filed complaints with NASA, citing a lack of appropriate consultation. As Dynetics stated more than once in the 61-page criticism they filed into the Government Accountability Office (which was co-signed by Blue Origin), in the original solicitation, NASA suggested that it was dedicated to fostering an environment of competition.
This included selecting two candidates for Option A contract, something NASA went against ultimately, citing budget constraints and scheduling problems. Additionally, the legal team representing Dynetics also attracted attention to this”improper and high risk” which SpaceX’s strategy entails. In case there was any ambiguity in what they were getting at, Dynetics spelled it out in their criticism:
“[T]he Supply Choice Statement is devoid of any mention let alone consideration of the inherent dangers associated with the fact that four SpaceX Starship prototypes have exploded in the last four weeks alone. Landing people on the Moon requires a great deal of space engineering, to spot and reduce the considerable risks of human spaceflight, and NASA has given SpaceX a pass on its own demonstrable absence of such systems engineering.
To summarize, both Blue Origin and Dynetics whined that NASA failed to tell them in advance that they would be going with only 1 contractor. Second, they believed that said contractor needs to have a better safety record that doesn’t including exploding prototypes. While legal matters aren’t known for being kind and gentle, the nature of the Dynetics complaint does come off as a bit jagged.
Perhaps Musk’s impotence joke, directed at Bezos, had something to do with this. Regardless, NASA stated a formal spokesperson past week, stating:”Under the GAO protests,” NASA educated SpaceX that progress on the HLS (human landing platform) contract has been suspended.
This successful test of the SN15 is hence a small double whammy. On the one hand, it puts SpaceX closer to creating an entirely reusable heavy launch system that can make regular trips to orbit, the Moon, Mars, and (someday) beyond. On the other hand, SpaceX’s involvement in the Artemis Program is being challenged in part according to their record of success and failure with all the Starship prototypes.
By demonstrating that their system can perform all the crucial maneuvers safely and efficiently, SpaceX has undermined the contest’s challenge. There’s no method of knowing if this can influence NASA’s conclusion vis-a-vis their stop-work order they placed on the HLS. But for SpaceX and Musk, it has got to feel just like the icing on what was already a big win for the firm.
All things considered, it must feel pretty good to be Elon Musk right now!