Recently, SpaceX has completed short, 150-meter (just under 500 feet) test flights of two earlier Starship prototypes, SN5 and SN6. SN8, whose construction is currently set to be complete “in about a week” according to Musk, will have “flaps & nosecone” and ultimately is intended for a much higher altitude test launch.
The prototypes that SpaceX has flown and landed for its so-called ‘short-hop’ tests over the past few weeks have been full-sized, but with a simulated weight installed on the top in place of the actual domed nosecone that will perch atop the final production Starship and protect any cargo on board. SN5 and SN6, which are often compared to grain silos, are also lacking the large control flaps on either side of the nosecone that will help control its flight. SN8 will have both, according to Musk.
This version of the prototype will also undergo the same early testing and its precursors, including a static fire and other ground checkouts, followed by another static fire before ultimately attempting to fly to an altitude of 60,000 feet – and then returning back to the ground for a controlled landing.
SpaceX is off pace when it comes to Starship development relative to Musk’s earliest, rosiest projections – but the CEO is known for overly optimistic estimates when it comes to timeframes, something he’s repeatedly copped to himself.
Rocket development is also notoriously difficult, so this first high-altitude flight attempt could just as easily go very poorly. SpaceX in particular has a development program that focuses on rapid iteration, and learning from earlier mistakes while building simultaneous development prototypes incorporating different lessons gleaned from various generations. And while it may not have made Musk’s crazy timelines, it is moving very quickly, especially now that the most recent prototypes have survived pressure testing and made it up into the air.