The vehicle called SN15 was that Fifth of SpaceX’s prototype rockets to attempt such a landing and the first to successfully do so. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed the successful landing on Twitter:
It comes after four previous prototypes tried to land safely after blowing a few miles into the air, with all previous missions ending in explosions.
SN15 is an early iteration of Starship, the vehicle Musk envisions to one day bring the first humans to Mars.
According to SpaceX, the vehicle has several improvements over its predecessors. This includes upgrades to the hardware, communication and navigation systems, software, and the massive engines known as Raptor engines.
Musk first explained Starship’s intended landing method during a media event in September 2019. He billed it as a unique maneuver in which the missile would bounce back through the air with its belly toward the earth while its four fins shift slightly to keep it calm to keep. It’s a maneuver that Musk said was meant to mimic how a skydiver would fall through the air, rather than the straight vertical descent to Earth that SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets employ when they come in to land.
Perfecting the belly-flop landing maneuver is essential to enable “a fully reusable transportation system that carries both crew and cargo on long interplanetary flights and helps humanity return to the moon and travel to Mars and beyond” the company’s website.
The final flying prototype, SN11, exploded during landing, raining splinters on a nearby beach and threatening nearby video equipment set up by YouTubers to capture footage of the launch. The previous prototype, SN10, landed upright in March, but independent footage of the event showed the vehicle exploded about three minutes later.
All of SpaceX’s previous Starship prototypes have been far less powerful than Musk envisions the end product. While most of the test vehicles had three enignes, the final spacecraft is expected to have nearly 30. The starship part also needs to be put into orbit by a separate, massive rocket booster called the Super Heavy, which is expected to have more than 40 additional Raptor engines.
SpaceX has not yet publicly tested the Super Heavy rocket booster, although Musk has announced that he hopes a spacecraft will reach orbit within a year.
SpaceX also plans to give NASA a slightly modified version of the vehicle for the Artemis lunar program. As part of a recent assignment, Starship will be used to transport astronauts from a space station orbiting the moon to the lunar surface over the next several years. This marks the first time humans have returned to the moon since NASA’s Apollo program in the mid-20th century.