On the afternoon of May 5th, 2021, at 05:24 PM local time, SpaceX made its fifth attempt at a yearlong evaluation flight and soft landing using a Starship prototype. Given the results of the previous evaluation, this event had many people on the edge of their chairs. In all four attempts, the prototypes were able to achieve their maximum altitude and pull off the bellyflop move but then exploded during landing (or soon afterward).
Given how much of SpaceX’s future hinges on the success of the Starship and Super Heavy launch method, this is surely very good news. This goes beyond substituting their Falcon rocket family with Starships to transport everything from cargo and crews to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), it also includes SpaceX’s hopes for fulfilling its own recently-awarded contract with NASA to create a reusable lunar lander.
The flight began at 05:24:10 P.M. CDT (06:24:10 P.M. EDT; 03:24:10 P.M. PDT) amid foggy conditions, similar to what the SN11 flight undergone a couple of weeks ago. As in all previous cases, that the Starship attained its apogee, shut down its three Raptor engines (one by one), and then reoriented itself to get its own descent (the”belly-flop” move ). But this time around, the Starship experienced no issues because it reignited two of its own Raptor motors and descended the last few meters.
From the first two attempts, the SN8 and SN9 prototypes came in too sexy or over-rotated and burst upon landing. Throughout the next, the SN10 endured a small mistake using its landing legs that caused it to land too hard on one side, which caused a propellant leak that triggered a fire and an explosion.
Subsequently, there was that the SN11 high-altitude flight exploded while descending, raining debris all over the landing pad. This brought the total to four explosions in under four weeks, something which Blue Origin and Dynetics were convinced to mention when submitting complaints with NASA. You see, in between all this testing, SpaceX had been granted a lucrative contract worth $2.9 billion to create a Human Landing System (HLS) for NASA.
As part of this Artemis Program, SpaceX was among 3 firms competing to procure the right to construct the lander that will haul the Artemis III astronauts to the lunar surface in 2024 — others being Blue Origin and Dynetics. For their proposal, SpaceX provided a modified version of the Starship that would carry a crew of six astronauts all of the way from Earth to the Moon and allow for EVAs on the surface.
Shortly after NASA granted the Choice A contract to SpaceX, the two firms registered complaints with NASA, citing a lack of appropriate consultation. As Dynetics said more than once in the 61-page complaint they registered into the Government Accountability Office (that was co-signed by Blue Origin), in the original solicitation, NASA indicated that it was dedicated to fostering an environment of competition.
This included choosing two candidates for Option A contract, something NASA went against in the end, citing budget constraints and scheduling issues. In addition, the team representing Dynetics also attracted attention to this”improper and high risk” that SpaceX’s strategy involves. In case there was any ambiguity in what they had been getting at, Dynetics spelled it out in their criticism:
Landing people on the Moon requires a great deal of space engineering, to spot and reduce the inherent and considerable risks of human spaceflight, and NASA has given SpaceX a pass onto its own demonstrable absence of such systems engineering.
To summarize, both Blue Origin and Dynetics whined that NASA failed to tell them in advance that they’d be going with only one contractor. Secondly, they believed that said contractor should have a better safety record that does not including bursting prototypes. While legal matters aren’t generally known for being kind and tender, the nature of the Dynetics complaint does come off as a little jagged.
No matter NASA stated a formal spokesperson past week, saying: “Under the GAO protests,” NASA educated SpaceX that advancement on the HLS (human landing platform) contract has been suspended.
This powerful test of this SN15 is hence a small double whammy. On the 1 hand, it puts SpaceX closer to creating an entirely reusable heavy launch system that can make normal trips to orbit, the Moon, Mars, and (someday) beyond.
By demonstrating that their system can perform all the crucial maneuvers safely and effectively, SpaceX has sabotaged the competition’s challenge. There’s no method of knowing if that can influence NASA’s decision vis-a-vis their stop-work order they placed on the HLS. But for SpaceX and Musk, it has got to feel like the icing on what was already a big win for the firm.
After all, it must feel pretty good to be Elon Musk right now!