After a few delays and one aborted attempt, the SpaceX Starhopper finally made its ultimate flight on Tuesday at Boca Chica Beach. And although the event took less than a minute, the “hop” caps off centuries of research and represents a major step in the future of space exploration.
It’s the first major achievement at the local facility that is still being developed. But SpaceX officials promise it won’t be the last.
Hundreds of Rio Grande Valley residents were able to see, hear and — yes — feel the event firsthand.
They, and untold thousands more who viewed it on several live internet feeds, saw the stubby, 60-foot-tall vehicle that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk himself says looks like a water tower, lift up about 500 feet above billowing clouds of smoke, vapor and fire, slide several hundred feet sideways and gently lower itself down onto a landing pad.
It was actually the Starhopper’s fourth flight; it was lifted about 35 feet twice in tethered tests in April and about 60 feet, untethered, in July, but this was the first time all systems were brought into play. Musk had wanted to lift the ship 600 feet in this week’s test, but the Federal Aviation Administration allowed only the 500 ceiling.
The flight’s success means this was the Starhopper’s last full flight; it now will be used as a ground-based mount to test future rocket designs.
Some people might note that rockets have landed upright and on solid ground for years in movies and on television shows. Until now, however, reality has lagged behind the magic of the silver screen.
Launching a large rocket into the air and then bringing it back down safely to firm earth should save SpaceX, and other similar enterprises that use similar technology, billions of dollars that currently are lost by allowing ships to fall into the sea, burn up in the atmosphere or simply remain floating in space. Not only do the savings make more resources available for future flights and research, but the greater ability to reuse the spacecraft allows for more frequent, and thus more numerous, space trips.
Success in the “hover” — controlling the rocket’s flight — and landing tells SpaceX engineers that they’re on the right track; future development will largely be a matter of degree.
They hope that Tuesday’s test using a single Raptor rocket will lead to the development of massive spaceships that use as many as 35 Raptors that can take 100 people and the tons of fuel, food, and even breathing air they will need on months-long journeys as far away as Mars.
And while Boca Chica is just one of several SpaceX facilities, the company assures us that it figures heavily in the company’s future. Its welcome investment in the Valley community, from land development to programs at local public schools and our university to train local students to become future rocket scientists, gives us every reason to have confidence that not only will the Rio Grande Valley be able to see firsthand the future of space exploration, but we will play a major role in making that future a reality.