Never two without three? That was the question everyone was asking on Wednesday, March 3, about the third altitude test flight of the Starship, the upper stage of the future heavy launcher being developed by the American company SpaceX:
the first two flights - on December 9, 2020, and February 2, 2021 - had ended with a missed landing and the explosion of the rocket on the ground.
On the occasion of this new test, the engineers had made modifications for the final phase of the flight and Elon Musk had estimated the chances of success at 60%.
In a way, the boss of SpaceX was not mistaken. The SN-10 (Serial Number 10) prototype did manage to land at the base in Boca Chica, Texas, a bit crooked, but in one piece.
A fire broke out under the rocket and fire hoses went into action for a few moments. The fire seemed to be under control, but it was then, just a few minutes after landing, that an explosion propelled the Starship several tens of meters above the ground. The device was destroyed.
Even if it was necessary to restart twice for takeoff (the first countdown was interrupted 0.1 seconds before the end), the flight was "nominal", to use the adjective used in space, which means that everything is going as planned.
During the ascending phase, the three Raptor engines of the Starship went out one after the other and the rocket carried out, at its apogee, the astonishing maneuver of rocking which characterizes it, passing from the vertical to the horizontal. Thanks to its flaps, the 50-meter steel cylinder then made a guided descent, "on its belly".
Destruction is part of the game
Unlike the first two tests, in which the engines were restarted at or near the last second, the Raptors started up earlier. This gave the rocket time to recover (with three engines), stabilize (with two engines) and finally complete its descent (with only one engine).
If this longer maneuver made it possible to land the Starship approximately straight, it was not enough to prevent its destruction.
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It does not prevent. SpaceX has never made a mystery of the risks taken in testing his rocket and considers that he learns from his failures: destruction is somehow part of the game. This third test, which will be qualified as a semi-failure, marks a progression compared to the two previous ones.
And the SN-11, which is already almost completely assembled in Boca Chica, is waiting for its turn...ca, is waiting for its turn...