Elon Musk’s Starship explodes on test flight
SpaceX’s Starship failed to reach orbit on Thursday, exploding just minutes after takeoff as it could not separate from the booster rocket. Elon Musk’s space exploration company described the event as “a rapid unscheduled disassembly” but said the test resulted in valuable insights.
The orbital test was originally scheduled for Monday, but had to be postponed after a problem was detected with one of the valves. The launch was rescheduled for Thursday morning from the company’s test site at Boca Chica, Texas.
Thursday’s test was almost called off as well, with the countdown stopped at just 16 seconds before liftoff. After a short pause, however, the launch proceeded.
The plan was to lift the Starship into orbit using the SpaceX Super Heavy booster, which would be discarded into the Gulf of Mexico. The vessel itself was supposed to complete a full orbit around the earth and splash down into the Pacific Ocean after re-entry.
According to SpaceX, the booster failed to separate from the Starship about four minutes into the flight, resulting in the explosion.
“With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary,” the company said in a statement afterwards, congratulating the team on “an exciting first integrated flight test.”
Musk had urged caution prior to Monday’s scheduled launch, saying this was a “fundamentally difficult thing” to do and that “success is not what should be expected.” After the explosion, he also congratulated SpaceX on “an exciting test launch” and said the company “learned a lot” for the next test, due “in a few months.”
The Super Heavy, which has 33 rocket engines, successfully passed the stationary test in February, showing it can generate enough power to reach orbit. AP described it as “the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.” With the Starship mounted on top, the entire assembly is about 120 meters tall, taller than the Apollo-Saturn complex NASA had used for the moon program in the 1960s. The US space agency hopes to use the Starship for the Artemis moon program in the coming years.
The term “rapid unscheduled disassembly” entered the launch lexicon after SpaceX used it to describe an explosion of a Falcon 9 booster during a 2015 attempt to land on a drone-operated barge. The first successful landing took place in April 2016, and became routine the following year. On Wednesday, a Falcon 9 launched a set of Starlink satellites and landed on a drone ship dubbed A Shortfall of Gravitas without any difficulties.