It's been nearly 10 years since SpaceX began doing "impossible" things. In a series of test flights with an experimental suborbital vehicle dubbed "Grasshopper," Elon Musk's pioneering spaceflight company proved it could launch a rocket, and then land it in a controlled fashion back where it started -- paving the way for it to build reusable spacecraft. Now, SpaceX is doing this again, but on a much larger scale.
Those decade-past experiments used a freestanding, early-model Falcon 9 first stage that measured 106 feet tall and 12 feet wide, and was powered by one tiny Merlin 1-D engine. On Tuesday, SpaceX used a significantly scaled-up its test vehicle. It deployed a more robust Raptor SN27 engine to launch its fifth Starship prototype -- the SN5, which is similar to Grasshopper in height, but with a diameter of 30 feet -- to a height of 150 meters, and then landed it in one piece.
SN5 is not a fully functional prototype. A full-scale Starship will comprise a massive Super Heavy booster powered by 35 Raptor engines, carrying atop it the six-engine Starship space vehicle that will transport cargo and passengers. The prototype used Tuesday was essentially just the fuel tank for that top half of the vehicle. Still, to turn that design into an operational Starship capable of at least suborbital flights, it would seem all SpaceX needs to do now is add more engines and a nosecone. SpaceX has proven the vehicle's structural integrity, as well as its ability to launch and land -- at least at very low altitudes.
SpaceX is expected to build on Tuesday's success by flying a series of increasingly higher hops, utilizing increasingly more-complete versions of the Starship. According to FCC filings, these tests may culminate in a 12-kilometer-high hop by February 2021. An orbital attempt would follow soon after, and within a few years perhaps ... Mars.