- SpaceX hopes to launch a prototype of its Starship spaceship as soon as Tuesday. Watch live below.
- The four previous high-flying Starship prototypes exploded.
- NASA has picked SpaceX to turn the mega-spaceship into a moon lander for astronauts.
SpaceX is getting ready to launch its fifth high-flying Starship prototype from its Texas rocket facilities. The spaceship could fly as soon as Tuesday.
Known as Starship Serial No. 15, or SN15, the vehicle is the latest in a series of Starship prototypes that SpaceX is launching up to 6 miles above Boca Chica, Texas. Eventually, a version of this mega-spaceship is expected to become NASA’s next moon lander, which would put boots on the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
When SN15 launches, it should shut off its three truck-sized Raptor engines one by one as it approaches the peak of its flight. 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 and gently lower to the landing pad.
That last step is where its four 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, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and a former member of the NASA Advisory Council, told Insider. “People have complimented SpaceX on how quickly they move.”
But, Logsdon 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 earlier this month that it is working with SpaceX to turn Starship into a lunar lander as part of NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to return people to the moon. NASA hopes to land its first crewed Starship on the lunar surface in 2024, though a recent report from the NASA Office of the Inspector General suggested it’s “highly unlikely” the agency will meet that deadline.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, recently predicted that Starship could fly its first humans “in a couple years.”
His goals for the launch system extend far beyond the lunar surface. Musk has said he plans to build 1,000 Starships to carry people and cargo to Mars. Ultimately, he hopes to establish a settlement there.
For now, though, SpaceX is trying to land the prototypes without blowing them up.
“Obviously we need to, like, not be making craters,” Musk said in a NASA press conference on April 23, referring to the explosions. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re making rapid progress.”
Government clearances indicate that SN15 could launch on Tuesday or Wednesday. The Federal Aviation Administration has issued airspace-closure notices for the area on those days. A Cameron County judge has also issued local road closures from noon to 8 p.m. CT, indicating that SpaceX may launch in that window.
Airspace and road closures are both required for launch. But they can change day-to-day depending on SpaceX’s plans and the FAA’s launch-licensing procedure.
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. During past Starship flights, the up-close cameras have provided stunning footage, like this clip of SN9.
SpaceX’s live feed of the SN15 launch will be embedded here once it becomes available. In the meantime, a few rocket enthusiasts and fans of the company are broadcasting live from Boca Chica.
For a more distant view of the launch site — broadcast from the top of a resort in South Padre Island, about 6 miles away — check out SPadre’s 24-hour live feed.
NASASpaceflight also 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 April 19.