What African Space Enthusiasts Should Know About The SpaceX SN Series and Crew Dragon

The SpaceX SN8 on Display || Nicholas D'Alessandro

On Wednesday, December 9, SpaceX Starship Serial Number 8 (SN8) prototype took off on an incredible sky-high test flight at 5:45 p.m EST from SpaceX’s facility near the South Texas village of Boca Chica. 

The primary goal of this test was for the SN8 to help SpaceX obtain relevant data pertaining to how the starship could reenter the earth’s atmosphere and automatically steer itself to a predetermined landing zone. The 50 metres Starship did not survive this test. After completing all the other manoeuvrability tests, and upon descent, it came in too strong and too fast and slammed right into the ground some 6 minutes after takeoff. SpaceX founder and CEO, Elon Musk tweeted  that the “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed!” RUD stands for Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly, or, in layperson terms, a rocket explosion).

Elon was not too optimistic about the starship completing all of the designated tasks. That was because it was a very complicated test which included an attempt at perfecting the landing flip manoeuvre which would be the first of a vehicle of its size. The previous altitude record was just about 150m and the SN8 was expected to reach 12.5 kilometres. SN8’s predecessors; the stubby Starhopper, SN5 and SN6 were equipped with just one of the company’s next-generation Raptor engines while the SN8 is powered by three Raptors. The SN8 is made up of two distinct parts; a spacecraft termed Starship and a giant rocket called the Superheavy. When it’s fully operational, it will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle with about 30 engines and the ability to carry more than 100metric tonnes. 

What is Musk working on? 

The Starship system is a fully reusable, two-stage to orbit (TSTO)  rocket launch vehicle under development by SpaceX since 2012, with functions ranging from earth to lunar transport, multi-planetary transport, intercontinental transport as well as space tourism. 

The Crew Dragon is a variant of the SpaceX Dragon 2 with the other variant being the Cargo Dragon. The Crew Dragon is a space capsule capable of carrying up to seven astronauts equipped with an integrated launch escape system (LES) capable of accelerating the vehicle away from the rocket in an emergency at about 11.8 m/s².

The subsequent Starships are being retrofitted with new and improved components that will aid their ability to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and other relatively distant destinations. Elon also reiterated his company’s commitment to a fully functional Starship after NASA has considered using the Starship and Crew Dragon to land astronauts on the lunar surface with the first touchdown set for 2024. SpaceX aims to meet this ambitious timeline by iterating fast and flying often as the SN9 is apparently nearly done. The SN9 and  SN10 will both feature little improvements while the major upgrades are scheduled for the SN15 launch. 

The starship once perfected would be able to launch heavier spacecraft into space and also launch satellites like the Starlinks into a more precise trajectory. 

How does this concern Africa?

Starlink is a Satellite internet constellation currently being developed and launched by SpaceX, which promises to deliver high-speed internet service to underdeveloped areas across the globe where internet access has been unstable or completely unavailable. Starlink is targeting services across Africa and the rest of the world by late 2021 or 2022 by promising that it would be affordable by everyone. Since the start of the launch back in September 2020, some 895 Starlink satellites have been launched into orbit.

With more scheduled tests and some considerable improvements on the starships, launching Starlinks would become an easy procedure which would translate to a wider coverage across the undercovered African communities. The success of the launch vehicles therefore means the faster delivery of the Starlink constellation. Which, invariably, means Musk may capture the African satellite market sooner than promised. This, of course, is barring the challenges of pricing and regulations which the company may face on the continent. 

But there is even more in Space Tourism for those who can afford it

After the success of the Crew Dragon flight back in May, Elon admits that one of his goals is to make the human species multi-planetary. It is not a secret that a handful of wealthy space enthusiasts are hoping to be able to travel to take a trip to space or even land on Mars once it’s safe to do so.

Axiom Space and Space Adventures have reached agreements with SpaceX to fly Crew Dragons starting next year. This would see space enthusiasts join astronauts on a trip to space or to visit the ISS for a staggering fee of USD55 million for a 10-day stay. 

In 2002, Mark Shuttleworth became the second-ever space tourist and the first African to visit the International Space Station as a member of the Soyuz TM-34. He paid a whopping USD20 million to spend eight days there, a dream only a handful of people could afford then and even now. Africans are not removed from luxurious endeavours, and space enthusiastic Africans might as well get an opportunity to invest in more luxury in the future, through space travels.


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