BROWNSVILLE — SpaceX’s first untethered launch of its Starhopper prototype at Boca Chica Beach late Thursday was an important milestone for the company and development of the 100-passenger Starship/Super Heavy vehicle SpaceX plans to take to the Moon and Mars.
The hopper’s single Raptor rocket engine ignited at 10:44 p.m. at the launch/test site 24 miles east of Brownsville, enveloping the stainless-steel-clad vehicle in billowing fire and exhaust before pushing it upward and to one side before the hopper touched down again. The test ignited a brush fire that continued to burn Friday.
In drone footage posted by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk on Twitter early Friday morning, the hopper can be clearly seen ascending, atop a column of blue flame, before disappearing completely behind orange-tinted clouds of exhaust. In footage from a camera mounted to the bottom of the hopper, the engine can be seen igniting and the vehicle rising and moving over the launch pad, with quick minor adjustments of the engine’s attitude to maintain control, before setting down.
In a nod to the many commentators noting the hopper’s resemblance to a water tower, Musk tweeted a few minutes after the inaugural flight: “Starhopper flight successful. Water towers ‘can’ fly haha!!”
The flight took place after an aborted hop attempt on July 24, caused by excessive pressure due to colder-than-expected propellant, according to Musk. The goal had been to fly the hopper to 20 meters, or about 65 feet. SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, Calif., hasn’t indicated whether the vehicle reached that height Thursday, though Musk tweeted that the next step is a 200-meter hop (just over 656 feet) within the next week or two.
SpaceX hopes to have its Mark 1 version of Starship, now under construction at SpaceX’s Boca Chica yard near the launch site, ready for testing up to 20 kilometers, or 12.4 miles, in a few months, Musk wrote in a July 12 tweet.
The Mark 1 will fly with three Raptor engines compared to the Starhopper’s one. The same is true for the Mark 2 Starship version being built at Cocoa, Fla., near Cape Canaveral. Both versions are much more spaceship-like in appearance than the 60-foot-tall hopper, whose stubby build earned it the water tower comparisons.
Thursday’s hop, an important event for SpaceX, was likewise a milestone for Brownsville in its pursuit of space-related economic development, a dream sparked by the company’s announcement that it planned to build a launch facility at Boca Chica.
The dream was not, and is not, universally embraced, as some residents of Boca Chica Village near the launch site and environmentalists voice concerns about quality of life and the effect on wildlife and the environment.