SpaceX nails first Starship landing weeks after NASA Moon lander contract

In perhaps the best possible news that could have followed NASA’s historic SpaceX Moon lander contract, the company has successfully landed a Starship prototype in one piece – without it exploding – for the first time ever.

In spite of unusually unreliable live views from the rocket’s onboard cameras, possible due to SpaceX using Starlink as a Starship antenna for the first time, Starship serial number 15 (SN15) touched down at the very edge of the landing pad a bit less than seven minutes after lifting off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch facilities.

Starship landing nominal!

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 5, 2021

SpaceX did it. They landed Starship.


— Erc X (@ErcXspace) May 5, 2021

Like all four of its predecessors, Starship SN15 ignited all three of its Raptor engines and gradually ascended to an altitude of ~10 km (6.2 mi), gradually shutting down one engine every 90 or so seconds along the way. At apogee, after briefly hovering under the power of one engine, the last Raptor cut off and Starship angled over onto its belly and simply fell back to Earth.

Using four large steel ‘flaps,’ the rocket controlled its descent like a skydiver down to approximately 500m (~2000 ft) above the ground and ignited two or three of its Raptors to aggressively flip into a tail-down orientation. SN15 then slowed all the way down under the thrust of two of those engines for an exceptionally soft – albeit inaccurate – landing on a concrete pad.

Starship SN15 has landed. @NASASpaceflight

— Jack Beyer (@thejackbeyer) May 5, 2021

Much like SN10, which caught on fire shortly before touchdown, landed intact, and then exploded after that fire continued to burn, Starship SN15 appeared to catch fire shortly after landing and a significant fire burned for at least five minutes before disappearing. As a result, be it intentional on behalf of SpaceX or simple luck, SN15 did not explode after touchdown. The Starship also landed far more gently than Starship SN10, which effectively pancaked its tiny legs and embedded its skirt directly into concrete.

Ultimately, Starship SN15’s fully successful launch and landing is an immense achievement after four failed – but data-rich – attempts and confirms that SpaceX is on the right track. Perhaps even more importantly, the success is quite possibly the vindication for NASA after the space agency made the shocking decision to return humanity to the Moon with SpaceX’s Starship.

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