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Success! SpaceX Starship test ‘hop’ a historic first leap toward Mars

By Benjamin Bullard
SpaceX Starship test hop from August 4 2020

Sure, the internet quickly filled up with good-natured jokes about giant beer cans leaping off the ground and gleaming metal grain silos being flung into the sky. But Tuesday’s successful test of the long-developing Starship prototype gave SpaceX its second big win in the span of two days — and marked a huge first step in helping NASA achieve its long-term dream of putting a human footprint on the Red Planet.

SpaceX’s SN5 (Serial Number 5) Starship prototype fired its massive Raptor engine and left the tarmac Tuesday evening at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas testing facility. In the process, it successfully achieved real air — and even actual lateral locomotion — before setting down on its tiny landing feet in a cloud of smoke across the launch pad.

The test flight took Starship — minus its nose cone, which of course will be part of the final design — to a height of about 500 feet, lasting around 40 seconds from liftoff to landing. The giant, 30-foot diameter vessel was propelled by only a single Raptor engine, but SpaceX can configure the engine bay, seen in action in the video above, for as many as six Raptors when the time to blast off to Mars arrives.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk unveiled a gleaming, full-scale prototype of Starship in its finished livery at a much-buzzed event last year, showing off a stainless steel fuselage that looks equally at home on a sci-fi movie big screen as under the floodlights on the real-world launch pad. Unlike SpaceX’s Dragon program, which on Sunday completed its first-ever crewed round trip to the International Space Station, the Starship program harbors bigger space ambitions, and has come with a commensurate share of big-ambition glitches.

Last year, a truncated version of Starship performed a brief test hop, taking the smaller “Starhopper” vessel to similar heights in preparation for this week’s larger-scaled launch. Along the way, though, SpaceX has lost a total of four test versions, via The Verge, with the most recent failure coming on May 29 — only two days before Dragon made its successful liftoff to the ISS with astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley aboard for a two-month stay.

NASA’s aim of landing people on the Moon by 2024 marks a necessary stepping stone along the private-public partnership to eventually carry a crewed Starship flight to Mars. Although Musk has long advocated an aggressive timeline, there’s currently no clear calendar date for reaching the Red Planet. Part of Starship’s program goal also calls for its future use as a lunar rocket, so it’ll likely find its first crewed takeoff heading to Earth’s lonely satellite before striking out for an even more solitary Martian adventure.