Despite the recent explosion in a test of SpaceX’s fourth-generation starship prototype, SN4, executives believe the starship could still be ready for its first orbital launch attempt by the end of 2020,media reported.
(Starship is a new space x project for SpaceX, and it’s not the same thing as a manned Dragon spacecraft)
Even if the first launch fails, the milestone would be one of the biggest disruptive events in space history, as it proves that the Saturn V-class launch vehicle can be built in simple facilities, using common materials and at a lower price. Just as the Falcon 1 rocket experienced three failed launches before it successfully reached orbit, the first orbital launch of the Starship is likely to fail.
Recently, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk explained the cause of the SN4 explosion, saying that “a small, fast-disconnect test” went wrong in an amazing way, causing a liquid methane leak that followed a fire and a huge explosion. Although the SN4 technically did complete the fifth Raptor engine static ignition test a minute ago, the spacecraft and everything around it was destroyed by a violent explosion, leaving only steel fragments and the launcher’s casing.
It is against this backdrop that Hans Koenigsmann, one of SpaceX’s most dispassionate and professional executives and vice president of construction and flight reliability, expects orbital launches to still be possible this year. He said several hover-over tests of the starship prototype will begin “in the coming weeks” and that if it goes well, the first orbital launch of the starship could take place before the end of the year.
This is actually the way SpaceX has always taken in developing new rockets and spacecraft. The team uses exactly the same methods to design, build and test its rockets and spacecraft, and tends to learn from practice. Inevitably, testing the limits of the smallest viable products will lead to failures, but these failures are actually valuable as long as they are extensively analyzed and learned from them.
For the past six months, SpaceX has been busy building, testing starship prototypes and continuing to improve technology in an endless cycle. Before the first stress test in November 2019, SpaceX hastily built the First Prototype Of the Starship Mk1 in a rough way. SpaceX accepted the failure, extracted all possible insights and dramatically improved production methods, completing the second-generation Prototype SN1 in just three months.
On February 28 this year, SN1 was destroyed in a test. Just 10 days later, however, SpaceX managed to find the error and correct a design defect in the engine. But it’s not just hardware that’s causing problems, sN3 was destroyed by human error in a low-temperature test on April 3. The SN4, which was manufactured less than a month later and placed on the launch pad, quickly reached a new milestone when it became the first full-size starship prototype to pass a cryogenic test, using real propellant for so-called wet rehearsals (WDRs), starting Raptor engines, and completing more ambitious cryogenic stress tests.
The prototype was only days away from the first test flight before the ground system fuel leak that caused the SN4 explosion. At this point, SpaceX has actually completed the manufacture of the SN5 and plans to install it on the launch pad next week, then try a cryogenic pressure test and a raptor engine static ignition test to clear the way for flight testing.
Mr Koenigsman said the SN5’s first flight could take place in a few weeks if the replacement of the ground facility is completed quickly. If the SN5 survives the first hoverboard test, it could eventually be upgraded with a rectifier, flaps and two additional Raptor engines to perform 20,000 meters of flight and re-entry tests, as well as a landing test.