SpaceX’s Starship, already towering over the low-lying southernmost tip of Texas, gained even more height early Thursday when it launched on its first integrated test and became the most powerful rocket in history.
But the rocket met a fiery end shortly after liftoff at 9:33 a.m. EDT from the company’s Starbase operations area near Brownsville, Texas.
Just over three minutes into the flight over the Gulf of Mexico, it became apparent the first-stage Super Heavy booster and second-stage Starship vehicle weren’t going to separate as planned, sending the combined 400-foot stack into a tumble. It eventually broke apart and crashed into the Gulf.
SpaceX later confirmed the rocket’s flight termination system, or FTS, was activated to destroy the tumbling vehicle for safety reasons.
Aside from the separation failure, it also appeared three of the rocket’s 33 Raptor engines failed to ignite at liftoff.
Despite the hardware failures, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX largely considered the mission a success. Teams initially had hoped to see the rocket’s engines ignite, then see the vehicle clear the tower. Anything else, SpaceX said, meant extra data for engineers to review.
“From a milestone standpoint, our main goal is to clear the pad, (meaning ascend past the 500-foot launch tower without a failure),” said Kate Tice, an engineering manager at SpaceX, in the launch webcast. “Every milestone beyond that is a bonus. The farther we fly, the more data we collect.”
Graphics:How SpaceX Starship compares Artemis rocket
Previously:SpaceX scrubs launch of Starship’s first integrated test flight from Texas
Had everything gone according to plan, Starship would have cleared the tower, then flown over the Gulf of Mexico. Just before the three-minute mark, Starship and Super Heavy would have separated, and the latter would have attempted a soft water landing. Starship would have continued to an altitude of about 150 miles before a soft water landing of its own near Hawaii.
An attempt to launch Starship earlier this week was scrubbed because of technical problems with a frozen valve in the Super Heavy booster. But technicians were able to clear the problem quickly and turn the vehicle around for another attempt 72 hours later.
“Congrats to SpaceX on Starship’s first integrated flight test,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward. Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test — and beyond.”
SpaceX is using Starbase, an operations and production area near Brownsville, Texas, for prototyping and building the first Starships. Low-lying and close to the ocean, the area is much like Cape Canaveral and Kennedy Space Center, especially during the Apollo days. Before SpaceX, there was no space industry presence there.
Starship, however, isn’t just limited to Texas. SpaceX plans on launching the massive vehicle from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center once the prototyping phase is over and plans shift to operational missions. Overall, the test flight showed significant progress for SpaceX, though it did also reveal some pain points.
“I would say this is within the envelope of what I expected for this launch,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who maintains a detailed database of launches, told FLORIDA TODAY, part of the USA TODAY Network. “This is toward the more successful end of what I expected.”
Meet the SpaceX Starship:It’s larger and more powerful than Artemis SLS. But will it fly?Clearing the pad and its 500-foot launch tower, McDowell said, was definitely a success for SpaceX. But in the process, it did appear the launch mount and some surrounding hardware took a beating beyond what many expected. And the failure to separate first and second stages needs to be understood, too.
“It’s still early days … and you’ve got to wait for the failure report,” McDowell said. “But it’s clear they bought down a lot of risk with this launch. They showed (the Raptor engines) work and they’ve shown that the vehicle can get through Max-Q (the period of maximum stress on the rocket) and even fly in circles for a bit, so clearly the structural design is pretty good.”
On the downside, McDowell said, “it looks like maybe the launch mount isn’t as robust as it needs to be.”
Starship isn’t alone in that struggle. Another heavy-lift rocket that launched recently, NASA’s Space Launch System, also left behind significantly more damage than anticipated after its debut mission in November. Elevator doors at KSC’s pad 39B were blown off, a swath of land was scorched, and the mobile launcher was damaged beyond original estimates.
Musk sees Starship as the vehicle that will launch massive payloads to Earth orbit, take humans to the moon, and eventually settle on Mars. The vehicle is critical to deploying the company’s next-generation Starlink internet satellites – necessary for increasing profitability of the internet constellation – and has been selected by NASA to help deliver Artemis program astronauts to the surface of the moon. The latter involves more than $4 billion in awards from NASA.
At Kennedy Space Center, meanwhile, SpaceX teams were targeting no earlier than April 26 for the next Florida launch. A three-core Falcon Heavy rocket is set to fly at about 7:30 p.m. EDT that evening, though timelines have not yet been finalized. Neither the two side boosters nor the center booster will be recovered after liftoff, so no local sonic booms this time.
What is Starship?
Starship is SpaceX’s version of a next-generation launch system designed to take humans, cargo, and payloads to Earth orbit, the moon, and Mars.
It’s been likened to something out of science fiction thanks to its reflective, stainless steel outer shell.
The vehicle comes in two parts: Super Heavy, a massive booster outfitted with 33 Raptor engines that will lift Starship, a 164-foot-tall spacecraft that can transport humans and cargo beyond low-Earth orbit. It produces more thrust than the Saturn V rocket of the Apollo era and NASA’s current Space Launch System.
To date, SpaceX is estimated to have spent at least several billion dollars on the Starship program.
Why is Starship important?
Musk’s reason for efforting Starship and Super Heavy hinges on his belief that humanity needs to become a multi-planetary, space-faring species sooner rather than later.
Musk sees Starship as the vehicle that will help SpaceX fulfill its vision of putting human boots on Mars. He ultimately wants hundreds of people traveling to the red planet in each Starship.
NASA last year awarded SpaceX $2.9 billion specifically for Starship, which is envisioned as the lunar lander for the agency’s Artemis program. If that architecture works out, it will take the next set of American astronauts from lunar orbit down to the surface of the moon during the Artemis III mission. The astronauts will use NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule to reach lunar orbit before docking with Starship, which will be waiting for them.
“As part of (the original) contract, SpaceX will also conduct an uncrewed demonstration mission to the moon prior to Artemis III,” NASA said late last year when it awarded a second contract to SpaceX for Starship development worth $1.15 billion.
So far, the rocket has only made short sub-orbital test flights. An orbital flight is a major step toward preparing for that moon mission which is expected sometime before 2030.
Has Starship launched before?
Previous test flights, which often ended explosively, only featured the Starship vehicle itself, but this time the combined 400-foot vehicle is launching from Texas.
SpaceX began building the first stainless steel prototype of Starship, known as “Starhopper,” in Texas, where it successfully launched on a minute-long, low-altitude test flight known as a “hop” in August 2019. A series of suborbital test flights were designed to stress systems and components to inform the production of larger prototypes.
In December 2020, the much larger Starship Serial Number 8 prototype was the first to successfully launch from Starbase. After liftoff, it sailed to a high-altitude, suborbital apogee and appeared to hover momentarily. Then, it turned around for a “belly flop” descent back to Earth. Though it exploded just short of its landing pad, all of SpaceX’s core test objectives for that flight were achieved.
In February 2021, the Starship Serial Number 9 prototype took flight. The 165-foot vehicle launched on a brief test and automatically throttled down its Raptor engines at about 33,000 feet. It then performed the “belly flop” using adjustable fins to establish a trajectory back toward the launch site. Though the test achieved SpaceX’s primary objective, SN9 failed to fully flip from “belly-down” to an upright position, causing it to explode on impact.
SpaceX’s third high-altitude Starship flight in March 2021 saw Starship Serial Number 10 successfully complete all objectives and execute the first landing of the next-generation vehicle. But minutes after sticking the landing, the spacecraft unexpectedly exploded.
Starship Serial Number 15 was the first to launch, land, and remain intact. In May 2021, SN15 took off from a concrete pad and ascended to an altitude of 10 kilometers, or 33,000 feet, before using its “body” as an airbrake to descend back to the launch site. Just before touchdown, it rapidly flipped around and gently landed under the power of two Raptor engines – a first for the program.