SpaceX and Boeing are arch-rivals: They’re both gunning for the glory of returning human spaceflight to US soil for the first time in a decade. They battle it out for lucrative government contracts. The companies’ CEOs have even traded taunts about who will be the first to reach Mars.
Starhopper has undergone a series of very brief “hop tests.” They’re meant to collect data and help engineers hash out how they’ll land a spacecraft on another planet.
Tuesday’s “hop” was by far the highest.
The Starhopper vehicle climbed above the plume of smoke put off by its Raptor engine, and a livestream of the test showed it hovering over the dusty floor of SpaceX’s test site in Boca Chica, Texas, a remote border community on the Gulf Coast. The craft throttled its engine and maneuvered eastward, taking a parabolic path to a pinpoint landing on a nearby ground pad.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had said SpaceX planned to lift the vehicle about 150 meters, or about 50 stories high. Musk congratulated his rocket company on the successful test in a tweet Tuesday.
Musk also previously confirmed on Twitter that the latest test would be the last for this Starhopper.
Starhopper is an early precursor to Starship, a spaceship design proposed by Musk that would blast off from Earth riding atop an enormous rocket, called Super Heavy, which is slated to be by far the most powerful launch vehicle ever created. The Starship and Super Heavy system is at the core of SpaceX stated mission: to colonize Mars. Musk said that Space X planned to start investing heavily this year in developing the hardware it needs to send people to the Red Planet.
“Hop tests” are not new for the company. SpaceX used another prototype vehicle, called Grasshopper, to conduct similar tests in the years before the company figured out how to land its Falcon 9 rockets safely back on Earth after launching.
Musk’s rocket company stands alone in its ability to guide a first-stage booster, by far the largest and most expensive portion of the rocket, back to a landing pad so it can be refurbished and used again on future orbital missions. SpaceX says its reusable rocket technology has allowed it to drastically reduce the cost of spaceflight.
SpaceX and Boca Chica Village
SpaceX began testing Starhopper in Boca Chica earlier this year. This latest test marked the first time that residents in the tiny community of nearby Boca Chica Village, where roughly 30 homes are located, were given a notice ahead of a SpaceX test.
Warnings passed out to the residents stated that a siren would sound at the time of liftoff. It advised people to exit their houses with their pets because of a risk that “a malfunction of the SpaceX vehicle during flight will create a overpressure event that can break windows.” They received the notices on Monday, before a hop test attempt that was ultimately aborted, and ahead of the successful flight on Tuesday.
Eddie Treviño, the local county judge, said he issued the warnings after discussing the risks with SpaceX and federal authorities. The risk of casualties was said to be negligible.
Treviño said there’s a “huge, huge sense of excitement” about SpaceX in Boca Chica and the nearby city of Brownsville. The company, he said, is expected to draw tourists to the area and help stimulate the local economy.
He added that the Boca Chica Village community is largely retirees who moved to the remote location to “get away from it all.”
“And that’s become harder to do because of SpaceX moving the operations in,” he told CNN Business. “Hopefully we can continue to come up with a win-win protocol” of alerting residents before potentially disruptive tests.
As SpaceX continues tests, and potentially introduces a more powerful prototype vehicle, it’s not clear how the county will issue warnings.
“We’re kind of inventing the wheel,” Treviño said, adding that he will continue discussions with SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration.