SpaceX can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Elon Musk's company is gearing up to launch its first-ever crewed mission on Saturday (May 30), a crucial test flight called Demo-2 that will send two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.
Demo-2 employs SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket, and the flight will lift off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But today (May 28), in Texas, the company tested out a completely different vehicle, Starship SN4, that's designed to help pave humanity's path into very deep space. The same day, the FAA issued a launch license for the company's Starship trials in Texas.
SpaceX briefly fired up the single Raptor engine of Starship SN4, the latest prototype of the company's Mars-colonizing spaceship. The Raptor blazed for a few seconds while the SN4 remained tethered to the ground at SpaceX's facilities near the South Texas village of Boca Chica.
It was the fourth "static fire" test for the SN4, and the second with this particular Raptor engine. The previous static fire blazed a little hot, scorching the base of the spacecraft, but the flames seemed to behave themselves this time around.
Musk has said he wants to take the SN4 out for a spin soon, on an uncrewed test flight to a target altitude of about 500 feet (150 meters). With four static fires now in the books, SN4 seems poised to take that leap. But the prototype won't get off the ground before Demo-2 does.
"I have redirected SpaceX’s priorities to be very focused on the crew launch," Musk told Aviation Week & Space Technology's Irene Klotz recently. "As a rough guess, I think we're a few weeks away from a hop."
SpaceX has its paperwork in order to take Starship prototypes pretty high up, by the way. Today, the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued the company a two-year license to launch suborbital flights from the Boca Chica site.
The final version of Starship will stand 165 feet (50 m) tall and be able to accommodate 100 passengers, Musk has said. The ship will be powered by six Raptors. It will launch off Earth atop a huge rocket called Super Heavy, which will sport 31 Raptors of its own. (Starship won't need Super Heavy to lift off from the moon or Mars, which have much weaker gravitational pulls than our planet does.)
Both Starship and Super Heavy will be fully and rapidly reusable, making the system affordable enough to enable all sorts of ambitious exploration projects, Musk has said. Chief among those envisioned feats is the colonization of Mars, which has been Musk's driving ambition for decades.
- SpaceX: Facts about Elon Musk's private spaceflight company
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- How living on Mars could challenge colonists (infographic)
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.