SpaceX managed to land its prototype Starship rocket at its Texas base without blowing it up on Wednesday, the first time it has managed to do so in five attempts.
The test flight represents a major victory for the hard-charging company, which ultimately plans to transport crew within Starship for missions to Mars.
“Starship landing rated!” founder Elon Musk tweeted triumphantly after the last four attempts ended in big explosions.
“Nominal” means normal in the context of space flight.
The execution was not quite perfect, with a small fire engulfing the base of the 50-meter rocket, called SN15, shortly after landing.
SpaceX webcaster John Insprucker explained that this was “not uncommon with the methane fuel we use,” and engineers were still solving design problems.
The flames were quickly extinguished with water cannons, footage showed.
Previously, the rocket took off from the starbase at Boca Chica in southern Texas at around 5:25 p.m. local time (2225 GMT), reached an altitude of 10 kilometers (6 miles), and performed a series of maneuvers, including a horizontal descent called a “belly flop.”
SpaceX was facing additional pressure to succeed with Wednesday’s flight after NASA announced last month that a version of Starship will be used as a lunar lander when the space agency returns humans to the moon.
But the $ 2.9 billion contract is currently suspended after two rival companies, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Dynetics, protested.
Nonetheless, if the price is finally confirmed, Starship will turn Musk’s pet project into a major taxpayer-funded venture, with all the attention that entails.
Starship’s first two flight tests, SN8 and SN9, both crashed and detonated upon launch in December and February, respectively.
The next, SN10, landed successfully and blew up a few minutes later on March 3.
The video feed dropped during the test flight of the fourth, SN11, with Musk later confirming that it too had exploded, this time mid-flight.
Ultimately, SpaceX plans to combine the Starship spaceship with a Super Heavy rocket, creating a fully reusable system for exploring deep within our solar system.
This latest version will be 120 meters high and can carry 100 tons in orbit – the most powerful launch vehicle ever developed.
Musk wants to use this to help realize his goal of transforming humanity into a multiplanetary species with a colony on Mars.
However, the planned lunar version of Starship would serve a more modest purpose: dock at a future lunar orbit station, collect astronauts, and then drop them on the moon.
To get the astronauts to the lunar station at all, NASA has a more traditional plan in mind: using its own giant SLS rocket topped with a crew capsule called Orion.
But the SLS missile has suffered serious delays and cost overruns, and observers have mused if Starship succeeds could one day make the SLS obsolete.