SpaceX launched its shiny, bullet-shaped, straight-out-of-science fiction spaceship several miles into the air from a remote corner of Texas on Wednesday, but the 6-minute test flight ended in an explosive globe at touchdown.
It was the highest and most detailed flight to date for the rocket ship that Elon Musk says could bring humans to Mars in as little as six years. Despite the disastrous final, he was happy.
“March, here we come !!” he tweeted.
This latest prototype – the first equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines – shot at an altitude of up to 12.5 kilometers. It is almost 100 times higher than previous hops and foams the stratosphere.
Starship seemed to hit the mark or at least get close. There was no immediate word from SpaceX about how high it went.
The full-scale stainless steel model – 50 meters long and 9 meters in diameter – rose above the Gulf of Mexico. After about five minutes, it turned sideways as planned and sank in a free fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border. The raptor engines were switched on again for braking and the rocket tilted backwards upright. When it touched, however, the rocket ship was engulfed in flames and broke, parts scattered.
The entire flight – as dramatic and spotty as it gets, even by SpaceX standards – lasted six minutes and 42 seconds. SpaceX broadcast sunset demos live on its website; repeated delays in the past week and a last second engine was interrupted on Tuesday, increased tension among space fans.
Musk called it a “successful ascent” and said that the body flaps precisely guided the rocket to the landing site. However, the fuel tank pressure was low when the engines were switched on again for touch, which caused the Starship to come down too quickly.
“But we have all the information we need!” he tweeted.
Musk had kept expectations low and warned earlier this week that it was “likely” a 1-in-3 chance of complete success.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who founded the Blue Origin rocket company, offered quick congratulations.
“Anyone who knows how hard this is is impressed by today’s Starship test.”
Two lower, shorter SpaceX test flights earlier this year from Boca Chica, Texas – a quiet coastal village before SpaceX moved in – used more rudimentary versions of Starship. Essentially cylindrical cans and single Raptor engines, these early vehicles reached heights of 150 meters. An even earlier model, the short and kneeling Starhopper, made a small tied hop in 2019 followed by two ever higher climbs.
Wednesday’s test followed SpaceX’s latest space station supply for NASA with three days and the private company’s second astronaut flight in less than a month from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
Starships are actually the upper part of Musk’s planned lunar and Mars ships. It will launch on top of a mega booster that is still under development, known as Super Heavy. The entire vehicle will rise 394 feet (120 meters) – 31 feet (9.4 meters) higher than NASA’s Saturn V rocket that threw men to the moon half a century ago.
SpaceX intends to use Starship to put massive satellites into orbit around the Earth, in addition to delivering humans and goods to the moon and Mars. Earlier this year, SpaceX was one of three main contractors selected by NASA to develop lunar landers that could have astronauts on the moon in 2024.
Just before Wednesday’s launch, NASA announced the 18 American astronauts who will train for Artemis’ lunar landing program.
While Musk accepted an award in Berlin last week, he said he was “very confident” of a human flight to Mars in six years – “if we’re lucky, maybe four years.” But Musk is the first to admit that his timelines may be too optimistic.