- SpaceX launched a prototype of its Starship spaceship thousands of feet into the air above its Boca Chica, Texas, facilities on Tuesday. The 16-story vehicle exploded upon landing.
- But Elon Musk previously estimated a 2-3 chance that the test flight would fail because it pushed Starship faster and farther than ever before.
- "Awesome test. Congrats Starship team!" SpaceX wrote in text during a live broadcast. Musk described the flight as successful in a tweet.
- The flight helps advance the development of Starship toward a two-stage vehicle that may one day send people to the moon and Mars.
- But first SpaceX has to clear several more earthly hurdles, including a new environmental analysis of its launch-site use.
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SpaceX launched a towering prototype of its Starship spaceship into the stratosphere on Tuesday, but the vehicle exploded upon landing in Boca Chica, Texas, after a nearly seven-minute flight.
Such a fiery outcome wasn't unexpected, though, and SpaceX hailed the audacious test as a success in its live broadcast on YouTube.
"AWESOME TEST. CONGRATS STARSHIP TEAM!" the company wrote in text while showing wreckage of the vehicle, called Starship serial No. 8, or SN8.
Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX in 2002, previously estimated a 2-3 chance that the test flight would fail. Musk said last week that a "lot of things need to go right" for the prototype to land intact.
That was because the flight of SN8 was its most strenuous flight ever attempted. The vehicle also represents the most advanced Starship prototype the company has launched to date: It stood 16 stories tall, used three car-sized Raptor rocket engines, and came with canards and wing flaps to fly it through the atmosphere in free fall.
The vehicle was expected to roar about 41,000 feet, or 7.8 miles (12.5 kilometers), into the air above SpaceX's expanding facilities at Boca Chica. (It's unclear if the vehicle reached that exact altitude.) About 6 minutes and 42 seconds after liftoff, the steel-bodied vehicle attempted to rocket to a landing but didn't have enough thrust, causing it to crash and explode.
"Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!" Musk tweeted after the flight. "SN8 did great! Even reaching apogee would've been great, so controlling all way to putting the crater in the right spot was epic!!"
Musk later added: "Mars, here we come!!"
Ahead of the flight, SpaceX said on its website that "SN8's flight test is an exciting next step in the development of a fully reusable transportation system capable of carrying both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond."
SpaceX plans to launch additional prototypes to further develop Starship. One called SN9 is already built and waiting in a facility down the road. The company hopes to eventually fly a 23-story rocket booster called Super Heavy, which may have more than two dozen car-sized Raptor engines in its final configuration. The behemoth lower stage is designed help propel a Starship spaceship toward orbit.
Together, Musk has said, the Starship-Super Heavy launch system will be fully and rapidly reusable, helping slash the cost of reaching space by thousandfold.
If Musk's vision for the Starship system plays out, the ship may one day fly NASA astronauts to the moon and cart humans to Mars en masse to build an independent Martian city. Meanwhile, back on Earth, the system could power round-the-world hypersonic travel.
A spectacular launch, belly flop, flip, and explosion of a steel rocket ship
With this flight, SpaceX proved the ability of SN8 to withstand greater altitudes and speeds than any previous Starship prototype has ever reached.
At 4:45 p.m. CT on Tuesday, SN8 roared to life on the company's Boca Chica launchpad. The vehicle then lifted off its beachside launchpad, slowly ascending thousands of feet above the ground.
Cameras strapped to SN8 recorded the entire trip. The live footage showed the vehicle shut down its engines one-by-one close to the apogee, or maximum height of its flight, then use small thrusters near its nose cone to tip forward. This set up the vehicle to sail through the air almost horizontally with its canards and wing flaps - a belly-flop-like maneuver designed to simulate a controlled return to Earth from orbit.
After free falling, the vehicle then refired its engines and flipped back to a vertical position. But there appeared to be a problem relighting one or more of the engines, which didn't give the rocket ship enough thrust to stick the landing. Instead, it crunched into the ground, catastrophically exploded, and spewed wreckage all over the landing site. (The area was cleared of people for miles around ahead of the flight.)
-SpaceX (@SpaceX) December 10, 2020
Before SN8's first and final flight, SpaceX flew a Starhopper prototype to about 492 feet (150 meters) in 2019 and launched a larger SN5 prototype to a similar altitude in August, as well as an SN6 prototype in September. Those launches helped SpaceX test the system's giant Raptor rocket engines and landing capability.
SpaceX hopes to ultimately leave behind suborbital launch attempts and try rocketing Starships to orbit from Boca Chica. But the company faces a new environmental analysis with the Federal Aviation Administration. Depending on how that process plays out, SpaceX may see a delay to orbit from a few months to a few years.
In an interview with Mathias Döpfner, the CEO of the German publishing house Axel Springer (which owns Insider Inc.), Musk said SpaceX hoped to land a crewed mission on Mars in 2026, Business Insider's Kate Duffy reported.
"If we get lucky, maybe four years," Musk said. "We want to send an uncrewed vehicle there in two years."
Watch the whole flight of SN8 below, from 15 seconds before liftoff to a very (very) rough landing.
This story has been updated with new information.