SpaceX has been developing Starship, its next-generation spacecraft, at its site in Boca Chica, Texas. The company has built a number of different Starship prototypes to date, include one prior version called the Starhopper that was essentially just the bottom portion of the rocket. Today, the company flew its first full-scale prototype (minus the domed cap that will appear on the final version, and without the control fins that will appear lower down on its sides), achieving an initial flight of around 150 m (just under 500 feet).
This is the furthest along one of these prototypes has come in the testing process. It’s designated Starship SN5, which is the fifth serialized test article. SpaceX actually built a first full-scale demonstration craft called the Starship Mk1 prior to switching to this new naming scheme, so that makes this the sixth one this size they’ve built — with the prior versions suffering failures at various points during preparations, including pressure testing and following a static engine test fire.
SN5 is now the first of these larger test vehicles to actually take off and fly. This prototype underwent a successful static test fire earlier this week, paving the way for this short flight test today. It’s equipped with just one Raptor engine, whereas the final Starship will have six Raptors on board for much greater thrust. It managed to fly and land upright, which means that by all external indications everything went to plan.
Starhopper previously completed a similar hop in August of 2019. SpaceX has an aggressive prototype development program to attempt to get Starship in working order, with the ambitious goal of flying payloads using the functional orbital vehicle as early as next year. Ultimately, Starship is designed to pair with a future Falcon Heavy booster to carry large payloads to orbit around Earth, as well as to the moon and eventually to Mars.
SpaceX is looking to raise around $250 million in new funding according to a new report from CNBC’s Michael Sheetz. The additional cash would bring SpaceX’s total valuation to around $36 billion, according to CNBC’s sources — an increase of more than $2.5 billion versus its most recently reported valuation.
The rocket launch company founded and run by Elon Musk is no stranger to raising large sums of money — it added $1.33 billion during 2019 (from three separate rounds). In total, the company has raised more than $3 billion in funding to date — but the scale of its ambitions provides a clear explanation of why the company has sought so much capital.
SpaceX is also generating a significant amount of revenue: Its contract to develop the Crew Dragon spacecraft as part of the NASA commercial crew program came with $3.1 billion in contract award money from the agency, for example, and it charges its customers roughly $60 million per launch of one of its Falcon 9 rockets. Last year alone, SpaceX had 13 launches.
But SpaceX is also not a company to rest on its laurels, or its pre-existing technology investments. The company is in the process of developing its next spacecraft, dubbed “Starship.” Starship will potentially be able to eventually replace both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, and will be fully reusable, instead of partially reusable like those systems. Once it’s operational, it will be able to provide significant cost savings and advantages to SpaceX’s bottom line, if the company’s projections are correct, but getting there requires a massive expenditure of capital in development of the technology required to make Starship fly, and fly reliably.
Musk recently went into detail about the company’s plans to essentially build new versions of Starship as fast as it’s able, incorporating significant changes and updates to each new successive version as it goes. Given the scale of Starship and the relatively expensive process of building each as an essentially bespoke new model, it makes perfect sense why SpaceX would seek to bolster its existing capital with additional funds.
CNBC reports that the funding could close sometime in the middle of next month. We reached out to SpaceX for comment, but did not receive a reply as of publication.
SpaceX demonstrated a safety system that will protect astronauts in the case of any unfortunate unforeseen accidents in future Crew Dragon flights, which included the spacecraft splashing down in the Atlantic Ocean, but during a post-mission press conference SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggested future return trips for the human-rated spacecraft could look very different.
Musk suggested that SpaceX could eventually seek to recover the Crew Dragon capsule using ships at sea that ‘catch’ the spacecraft as it lands, rather than allowing it to splash down and recovering it from the water. SpaceX is in the process of testing a similar system to recover the fairings (large protective covers) it uses to enclose cargo during its existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches.
“This requires ongoing discussions with with with NASA, but I think it’d be quite quite cool to use the boats that we are using to catch the fairing,” Musk said. “Once that is really well-established, [we could attempt] to catch the catch Dragon as it’s coming in from orbit, and then that would alleviate some of the constraints around a water landing.”
This could be a major advantage for SpaceX in terms of cost and reusability of its Crew Dragon spacecraft, which it eventually hopes to be able to fly both for NASA and for other commercial clients. Still, Musk emphasized that this is a goal for considerably further out beyond Crew Dragon’s actual start of service life, since it both requires NASA’s buy-in and certification, and also requires that SpaceX actually demonstrate their ability to reliably catch the cargo fairing first. So far, it’s caught one half of one fairing, but has also had a number of failed attempts.
“We obviously need to recover [the fairing] very reliably before we we consider trying to catch the catch the Dragon,” he added. “But I think that would be also an improvement, as opposed to lightning in the water.”