Investing in Space

SpaceX launches and lands prototype of its Mars rocket Starship in key short flight test

Key Points
  • SpaceX's Starship prototype Serial Number 5 took flight for the first time on Tuesday, passing a key test in development.
  • Starship is built of stainless steel and represents the next-generation rocket that CEO Elon Musk wants to use to send people to the Moon and Mars.
  • "Progress is accelerating," Musk tweeted after the flight.
SpaceX's prototype Starship launches in a short first flight test at the company's facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

The fifth prototype of SpaceX's next-generation Starship rocket passed its most critical test yet, taking off and landing in a short flight on Tuesday at the company's facility in Texas.

Starship prototype Serial Number 5, standing at about 100 feet tall, launched gradually and rose to about 500 feet above the ground before returning back to land on a concrete area near the launchpad. 

"Progress is accelerating," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted after the flight.

SpaceX's prototype Starship launches in a short first flight test at the company's facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

SpaceX has a fleet of rockets that it uses to launch satellites and astronauts, anchored by its Falcon 9 series that has launched 87 times — and landed its booster after 48 of those launches. But Starship represents the company's aim to make obsolete even the cost-saving advances of its Falcon 9 rockets. While Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable, Musk's goal is to make Starship fully reusable — envisioning a rocket that is more akin to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights where the only major cost is fuel.

Musk last year unveiled the Starship prototype, built of stainless steel and dwarfing the company's existing spacecraft. SpaceX is developing Starship with the goal of launching as many as 100 people at a time on missions to the moon and Mars.

SpaceX's Starship prototype SN5 on the company's landing pad after completing its flight test.

After SpaceX in May launched a pair of NASA astronauts in its first crewed mission, Musk pivoted the company's attention, declaring that the top SpaceX priority is now development of Starship. Musk said in an email obtained by CNBC that Starship's program must accelerate "dramatically and immediately,"

SpaceX released video of the flight test captured by an aerial drone, as well as a camera underneath the rocket that showed the Raptor engine and the legs deploy for landing.

President Donald Trump also shared video of SpaceX's SN5 flight, although he appeared to confuse the company with NASA in a tweet.

Although it wasn't a NASA test, leaders of the agency were notably paying attention to the SpaceX flight. NASA associate administrator Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen offered his congratulations to Musk's company on the successful flight.

Starship is one of SpaceX's ambitious programs, for which the company has raised about $3.5 billion in private capital to fund. But after a successful test flight a year ago completed by a previous iteration, known as Starhopper, the Starship program suffered several explosive setbacks in development. Those setbacks are part of Musk's motivation for asking more of SpaceX's about 8,000 employees to spend more time in Texas, even offering use of the company's private jet if people are willing to move from the company's facilities in California and Florida.

The extraordinary relocation offer underlines how crucial Musk sees the Starship project. SpaceX is already bidding for NASA contracts with Starship, most recently winning $135 million to compete against Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to deliver astronauts to the Moon. The company's Boca Chica team is already working nearly around the clock but Musk wants more, urging SpaceX employees to help Starship development progress even more quickly.

A look at the Raptor engine underneath SpaceX's prototype Starship rocket and the small legs that deployed for landing.

Musk revealed in a series of tweets what the next steps for Starship's development will be. He said the company will conduct "several short hops to smooth out launch process" before adding more pieces to the rocket for high altitude flights. Additionally, the stubby legs underneath the rocket won't remain as Musk said the next version will be about "60% longer," with later iterations being "much wider & taller."

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