On the Spectacular Flight of Starship SN8 and the Future of Starship Development

Yesterday’s flight of Starship SN8 has to be one of the most interesting, exciting, and downright spectacular flight tests of my lifetime. In a dim year, it certainly brightens your day to watch, even if it does not bring you optimism for the future.

Before Starship can take on advanced mission architectures involving refueling, SpaceX needs to solve the three big technical challenges to make Starship reusable to at least orbit and back:

  1. Survive reentry heating on the way back from orbit
  2. Aerodynamically guide the vehicle back to the landing site
  3. Land softly under propulsion of extremely high-performance rocket engines

Those are the three main phases, but the transitions between the phases are massive challenges to solve in their own right.

I’m not sure there’s any honest person out there who could argue that the SpaceX team Elon Musk has built is not the best in the known universe at #3. Yesterday’s flight saw them working to pick off #2.

They nailed it, including the landing flip which is that all-important transition between phases 2 and 3.

They have so many Starships in production down in Boca Chica that they will certainly fly more missions like that of SN8 before moving onto an orbital flight. That flight requires Super Heavy which is in production, and it will be the first time we see them try to solve phase 1 and the transition between that and phase 2.

That may be the gnarliest of all the challenges.

It Matched the Simulation

The most meaningful part of what we saw yesterday has to be how closely the actual flight matched the simulation shown during Musk’s Starship update in September 2019. That indicates that SpaceX has a really strong sense of this vehicle, the dynamics experienced during flight, and all of the control necessary to achieve the goal.

That wasn’t necessarily the case for early Falcon launches and landings, so it says a lot about the relative state of the SpaceX team on Starship.

Many organizations show simulations—or worse, artistic renderings—of what a proposed vehicle will be able to do. Fewer go on to actually fly something that matches what they showed off frame-for-frame.

That should inspire confidence that SpaceX isn’t just making up what this vehicle is capable of doing. And that means a lot with Starship in the mix for NASA’s Human Landing System contract, under consideration by the US government for point-to-point delivery systems, and obviously for their own Mars ambitions.

Waste Steel, Not Time

It was easy to shrug off earlier vehicles as mockups or flying test stands or otherwise not very capable. Some or all of that was accurate, I’m sure. But either way, I’m impressed with the rapid increase of capability from Starhopper to SN5 and 6 to SN8.

The “waste steel, not time” strategy is paying off. SpaceX will continue to knock down challenge after challenge methodically, realizing things that got missed or could be better for each vehicle, and fixing it on the next.

The best way to get overwhelmed is to try and solve everything at once. The best way to work is have a roadmap and a vision and constantly check your work against that as you make progress.