SpaceX Starship SN-8 test launch and fiery crash landing

On December 9, SpaceX conducted a test of its Starship rocket, and it was spectacular.

Starship SN-8 silver metallic rocket standing vertically against starry blue night sky
Starship SN-8

The rocket was called SN-8 (which just stands for Serial Number 8), following the naming pattern for each new iteration of the rocket. Elon Musk originally unveiled the idea for the Starship rocket last fall, and the prototypes SN-5 and SN-6 flew about 500 feet before falling back down. This test of a more complete looking Starship went up 12 kilometers, the vehicle’s first high altitude test.

Many people in the rocketry community watched this live. Below is a great condensed/ time lapse video showing both the launch and the landing, in case you missed it:

Basically, SN-8 had a successful launch and flew vertically for 5 minutes, then began falling back to earth. After cutting its engines, it fell horizontally – the “belly flop” maneuver – which maximizes surface area to help slow its descent.

As a side note, there are a lot of principles in rocketry that are the same whether you’re building and flying a very small model rocket or a colossal commercial rocket, and one of them is drag and aerodynamics. Rockets are sleek and meant to minimize drag and air resistance when they’re moving vertically (or in whatever direction they are pointed), but they are really inefficient and have enormous drag if moving at an angle or horizontally. You’d be surprised how slowly even a large, heavy rocket falls back to the ground without any parachute when it’s falling sideways, and often in multiple (connected) separated pieces.

Starship SN-8 metallic rocket horizontal, falling against light blue sky
image credit: NASA

Anyway, back to SN-8: the belly flop was successful in slowing it down somewhat, and then its engines turned back on to turn the rocket again for a vertical landing. Unfortunately, it was still descending a bit too quickly when it hit the launch pad (perfectly on target) and it exploded in a fireball. But overall, this was an unbelievable achievement.

SpaceX is continuing to innovate and make things that were just recently science fiction into a reality.

My own progress in rocketry may be impressive, but it’s not quite at that level yet. I have some catching up to do!