"Nominal Starship Landing!"
Elon Musk himself praised the successful performance of the prototype of the giant Starship rocket developed by his company SpaceX, whose previous four test flights had resulted in impressive explosions.
In spatial vocabulary, the term “nominal” means that the maneuver actually went smoothly.
Nominal Starship Landing!
- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 5, 2021
Flames erupted from the rocket base shortly after landing, according to the company's video broadcast, but appeared to have been extinguished by water cannons minutes later.
Such a fire "is not unusual" given the mass of fuel used by this huge 50m high craft, said SpaceX commentator on the live video, John Insprucker.
To read also "It's phenomenal": why Starship, the rocket for Mars by Elon Musk, fascinates so much
This prototype, named SN15 for "Serial Number 15", took off vertically using its three engines from Boca Chica, Texas, and the vehicle then flipped over to a horizontal position in the air.
SpaceX did not say if it had managed to reach the 10 km altitude, its goal, as in previous tests.
The rocket then descended to land on a runway very close to the take-off site, before returning to vertical.
Live feed of Starship SN15 flight test → https://t.co/Hs5C53qBxb https://t.co/chZjdVAute
- SpaceX (@SpaceX) May 5, 2021
In early March, another prototype, SN10, had also managed to land, but it finally exploded a few minutes after touching down.
Previously, SN8 and SN9 had launched in December and early February respectively, but crashed into large fireballs as they returned to the ground.
Finally, at the end of March, SN11 took off in thick fog, but the test also ended in an explosion.
Rocket chosen to go to the moon
These tests are taking place in a near-deserted area, near the border with Mexico and on the edge of the Gulf of Mexico - a place empty enough that an accident or explosion does not cause damage or result in casualties.
Starship is set to become SpaceX's rocket of choice to one day go to Mars.
It will eventually be composed, in addition to the manned spaceship, of a first stage called Super Heavy.
The whole will measure 120 m in height and will be able to carry 100 tons on board.
In the meantime, it is Starship - modified by then - that NASA has chosen to bring the next American astronauts to the Moon as part of the American Artemis program.
The astronauts will be launched from Earth by another rocket, SLS, developed by NASA, which will dock at a lunar orbital station called the Gateway.
This is where Starship will have to wait for them there, ready to receive the astronauts for the last leg of the journey to the surface of the Moon.
A pitfall, however: last week, competitor Blue Origin, which had also responded to the US Space Agency's call for tenders, filed a complaint protesting NASA's decision to choose SpaceX.