SpaceX is getting ready to rise over South Texas on Wednesday in the latest test of a prototype of its Starship spacecraft.
A future model of the vehicle is central to the goal of Elon Musk, the rocket company’s founder and chief executive, of one day carrying humans to Mars. NASA also recently awarded SpaceX a contract to build a version of Starship that would carry astronauts to the moon’s surface later this decade.
The test, known as SN15, is to be the fifth high-altitude flight of the Starship system. You can watch the livestream of the test on SpaceX’s YouTube channel or in the video player below:
In four previous tests, conducted since December, the rockets launched successfully and, after reaching an altitude of several miles, demonstrated controlled belly-flops back toward the ground. But each time, problems during landing or after the rocket touched down resulted in spectacular explosions.
During the last flight, on a foggy March 30, the engines reignited at the start of the landing procedure. But live video from SpaceX froze for nearly six minutes after liftoff. Coverage by NASASpaceflight, a website for space enthusiasts, showed shards of metal raining down around the launch site, including debris that hit one of the website’s cameras.
Mr. Musk said on Twitter after that test that there appeared to be a problem with one of the engines during the ascent, and it did not quite work properly when it reignited for landing.
SpaceX takes a fail-fast, fix-fast approach, using the tests to identify shortcomings of design and making adjustments on subsequent flights. An announcement by NASA in April may bring more attention to Starship’s progress and setbacks.
A few weeks ago, NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX for $2.9 billion to use Starship to take astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon. The contract is part of the Artemis program, and NASA had been expected to choose more than one company to build a moon lander, mirroring the approach the space agency has used for hiring companies to take cargo and now astronauts to the International Space Station.
After the announcement, NASA’s decision was challenged by the two other companies that were competing for the contract: Blue Origin, the private company founded by Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon; and Dynetics, a defense contractor in Huntsville, Ala. NASA has now instructed SpaceX to halt work on the lunar Starship until the Government Accountability Office makes a decision on the protests. The challenge does not affect SpaceX’s work on the Starship models currently being tested in Texas.
Mr. Musk’s company has become successful in the launch business, and it is now one of the world’s most valuable privately held companies. Its Falcon 9 rockets have become a dominant workhorse for sending satellites into orbit. It routinely transports cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. In the last month, it has launched four astronauts to the space station for NASA, and later brought home another crew in a nighttime splashdown on Saturday.
However, many are skeptical about Mr. Musk’s assertion that the company is just a few years from sending a Starship to Mars, saying he has repeatedly set timelines for SpaceX that proved far too optimistic.
In 2019, when he provided an update on the development of Starship, he said that a high-altitude test would occur within months and that orbital flights could occur early in 2020.
Instead, several catastrophic failures happened because of faulty welding. When the propellant tanks stopped rupturing, two of the prototypes made short successful flights last year. Those earlier Starship prototypes resembled spray paint cans with their labels removed, rising nearly 500 feet using a single rocket engine before setting back down at the Texas test site.
Although it has lifted off the ground many times, Starship is a long way from being ready for a trip to orbit. But SpaceX already has its eyes on future tests that will send subsequent Starship prototypes to much greater altitudes. In March, Mr. Musk shared a picture of a prototype of the large booster stage that will be needed for a trip to space. It is over 200 feet tall.