Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship has made headlines once again, as its mammoth new rocket, SpaceX Starship, exploded on its maiden flight. The uncrewed test took place on Thursday morning local time from the coast of Texas. Fortunately, no one was hurt during the test flight.
After approximately two to three minutes into the flight, the rocket – the biggest ever developed – began to lose control and tumbled out of control. It was eventually destroyed by onboard charges. Despite the failure, SpaceX Starship engineers still consider Thursday’s mission a success. They believe in “testing early and often” and are not afraid to break things.
Elon Musk has announced that his company will try again in a couple of months, and a second SpaceX Starship is almost ready to take flight.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses rocket launches in the US, has said it will oversee a mishap investigation, as standard practice when a vehicle is lost in flight.
Before the launch, Mr. Musk had tried to temper expectations, stating that just getting the vehicle off the ground without destroying the launch pad infrastructure would be considered “a win.” The test cleared its launch complex on the US-Mexico border, and as it headed out over the Gulf of Mexico, it picked up pace. However, within a minute or so, it became evident that not everything was going to plan.
During the ascent, six of the 33 engines at the base of the vehicle had been shut down or had flamed out. And three minutes into the flight, the two halves of the vehicle should have been separating, but instead, they were still connected, and the rocket was veering off course.
At launch-plus-four-minutes, the vehicle’s Flight Termination System (FTS) was triggered, and a large explosion ripped across the sky as Starship lost altitude.
SpaceX Starship engineers consider Starship test a success
In a statement, SpaceX said, “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today that will help us improve on future flights of Starship.”
The top segment of SpaceX Starship, also known as the ship, had previously taken short hops, but this was the first time it had launched with its lower-stage. The immense booster, called Super Heavy, had been fired while clamped to its launch mount in February. Its cluster of engines on that occasion had been throttled back to half their capability.
The plan for the mission had been to send the ship on one near-complete revolution of the Earth, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific, a couple of hundred km north of Hawaii. There was no expectation that the ship or Super Heavy would be recovered. However, long term, this is the plan. The idea is to land both halves, refuel them and launch again – over and over.
SpaceX Starship has a prospective payload performance to the orbit of more than 100 tonnes per flight. When this is allied to the low cost of operation, principally just the cost of fuel, it should open the door to an exciting future.
“In the industry, there’s certainly a very high expectation at the potential of this vehicle for disruption,” said space consultant Carissa Bryce Christensen. “Its massive capacity, from a commercial standpoint, could be significant. A very large vehicle that’s human-rated could be important for the emergence of space tourism. The other element is the vehicle being inexpensive. So, you’ve got a vehicle with two transformational aspects – massive capacity and, potentially, at a very low price,” said the CEO of BryceTech.
Starship to launch thousands more satellites for Starlink
The entrepreneur will initially use SpaceX Starship to launch thousands more satellites for his broadband internet constellation in the sky – Starlink. Only when engineers are confident in the vehicle’s reliability will they permit people to fly on the rocket.
The first mission has already been lined up. It will be commanded by billionaire US businessman and fast-jet pilot Jared Isaacman. He’s already flown to space in a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
Isaacman will lead a crew of three on a multi-day mission called Inspiration4, which is slated to launch in September of this year. The crew will be the first all-civilian crew to fly to orbit and will be raising funds for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Meanwhile, SpaceX is continuing work on Starship prototypes, with a second vehicle nearly ready to take flight. The company has been rapidly iterating on the design, with several test flights already completed on earlier versions of the vehicle.
The long-term goal is to use Starship to transport humans and cargo to Mars and establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet. The rocket’s massive payload capacity and low cost of operation could make this vision a reality in the coming decades.
Despite the setback of Thursday’s SpaceX Starship explosion, the company team remains optimistic and committed to pushing the boundaries of space exploration.
“We’re not discouraged. We’ll be back to fly again soon,” said SpaceX engineer John Insprucker in a live-streamed update after the test flight.
With the pace of innovation and experimentation that has become the hallmark of the company, it’s clear that SpaceX is only just getting started in its quest to revolutionize space travel and exploration.