SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded minutes after liftoff from its south Texas launch pad on Thursday. The most powerful rocket ever built did not make it to orbit, but provided important lessons for the private space company as it strives for more successful missions.
At 9:33 a.m. ET, the engines on the Super Heavy booster ignited in a huge cloud of fire, smoke and dust as the starship slowly rose. After about a minute, the rocket goes through a period of maximum aerodynamic pressure, one of the critical moments in any rocket launch. Shortly after, it began to roll before exploding in a fireball over the Gulf of Mexico.
Despite the fiery results of the mission, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated the company. “Every great achievement in history has required some degree of calculated risk because with greater risk comes greater reward,” Mr Nelson wrote on Twitter.
The space agency is relying on SpaceX to build a version of Starship that will carry two astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface during the Artemis III mission. The flight, which was delayed from Monday, has sparked a lot of anticipation because the mammoth rocket could one day carry a lot of cargo and many people into space.
Company founder Elon Musk had tempered expectations ahead of the launch, which took place without a crew and was meant to validate the design of the rocket system. He said it may take several tries before Starship succeeds in this test flight.
But the launch achieved some important milestones, with the rocket flying for four minutes and clearing the pad completely. The short flight produced a wealth of data for engineers to understand the vehicle’s performance.
“To some people, that may seem like that, but it’s not a failure,” said Daniel Dunbach, executive director of the National Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a former top NASA official. “It was a learning experience.”
Still, the flight was not a complete success. The flight plan called for the Starship spacecraft to reach an elevated altitude of about 150 miles before splashdowning in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii about 90 minutes later. It remains to be seen how the results of Thursday’s flight might affect NASA’s timeline, which is optimistic that the first moon landing with astronauts aboard Starship will take place in late 2025.
When SpaceX began building Starship, it was motivated by Mr. Musk’s dream of one day sending people to Mars, an endeavor that would require transporting vast quantities of supplies to succeed.
But entrepreneurs and futurists are thinking closer to home. A massive, fully reusable vehicle would slash the cost of sending things into space, leading some to imagine how Starship might carry giant space telescopes to peer into the universe, or carry squadrons of robots to explore other worlds. Others are designing larger satellites that are cheaper because they don’t have to use the expensive components currently required to fit the size and weight constraints imposed by today’s rockets.
“Flying rockets and reusing them has enormous potential for game-changing and orbital delivery,” said Phil Larsen, who served as a White House space advisor during the Obama administration and later worked in communications at SpaceX. “And it could enable entirely new classes of tasks.”
Despite the setbacks, SpaceX remains the dominant company in the global aerospace industry. Its rockets have made 25 spaceflights in 2023, with the most recent launch successfully wrapping up on Wednesday.
The countdown on Thursday at the South Texas launch site near Brownsville ran smoothly through the morning, until the final half-minute pause of a few minutes while SpaceX engineers worked out a technical issue. Employees at SpaceX headquarters in California cheered loudly as the countdown resumed.
Then, it flew as a cloud of exhaust gas rose around the rocket.
“It looked really good off the mat and looked really good for a while,” Mr Dumbacher said.
In an update, SpaceX said the rocket traveled about 24 miles over the Gulf of Mexico. Video of the rocket caught the flash as several of the 33 engines failed in the lower part of the spacecraft, the Super Heavy booster. It turned out that the guidance system could not compensate, and the vehicle began to roll over in the corkscrew path.
“This doesn’t appear to be the nominal situation,” SpaceX engineer John Insprucker reported during the company’s launch livestream.
The upper stage starship apparently did not separate from the booster, and four minutes after liftoff, the automatic flight termination system destroyed the rocket, ending the flight with a fireball.
The launch fulfilled SpaceX’s “Guaranteed Excitement” promise. And it avoids the worst outcome of exploding on the launch pad, which would require extensive repairs.
Mr Musk congratulated the SpaceX team on Twitter. “Learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months,” he said.
Karl Kriegh, 69, and his wife traveled from Colorado for the launch before stopping on the beach on South Padre Island, with spectators flying in from a safe distance.
“I’m glad I lived to see this,” he said. “It’s unbelievably dramatic, one of those things on the bucket list.”
Carlos Huertas, 42, a stage technician living in Los Angeles, showed up on the beach wearing an “Occupy Mars” T-shirt sold by SpaceX.
“I thought it turned out great until I learned it blew up,” he said. He added that he was “a bit disappointed, even though we know it’s a strong possibility,” and said he hoped to see another launch soon.
Heavy rockets like Starship are inherently more complex and harder to develop than smaller ones, just as building an aircraft carrier takes more work than building a typical yacht. In addition, SpaceX aims to make all parts of the spacecraft reusable and capable of launching again within hours of landing, an engineering challenge that surpasses what was achieved in the first 60 years of the space age.
Experts weren’t surprised that SpaceX didn’t completely succeed on the first try.
“They probably have a couple of questions to look into why some of the engines might not be running,” Mr. Dumbacher said. “They’ll investigate, they’ll figure it out, they’ll come back next time, they’ll fix those issues, they’ll move on to the next target, Ultimately the way they’re going to make it all fly in orbit. I’m confident in that.”
However, SpaceX has a history of learning from its mistakes. The company’s mantra is basically “fail fast, but learn faster.”
Traditional aerospace companies try to predict and prevent as many failures as possible in advance. But this approach costs money and time, and can lead to vehicle overdesign. Instead, SpaceX is more like a Silicon Valley software company—starting with an imperfect product that can be improved quickly.
When it tried to start landing the Falcon 9 boosters, the first few boosters were overstressed and exploded. With each attempt, SpaceX engineers tweaked the system. After the first successful landing, another soon followed. Today, it would be a rare surprise if the booster failed to land.
The company took a similar approach a few years ago to fine-tune Starship’s landing procedures. In a series of tests, a Starship prototype rose to an altitude of about 6 miles before shutting down its engines. It then dives through the atmosphere to slow its descent, before tilting back to a vertical position and firing its engines again for landing. The first few times ended explosively before one attempt finally succeeded.
SpaceX, one of the most valuable privately held companies, has a huge financial cushion to absorb setbacks, unlike the early days when its original rocket, the Small Falcon 1, failed to reach orbit in its first three launches. Mr. Musk scraped together the money and parts needed for a fourth launch attempt. If it fails, SpaceX will go out of business. The fourth Falcon 1 launch was successful, and almost all of SpaceX’s efforts since then have been successful, even if they sometimes fail at first.
Big NASA projects, like the Space Launch System, which NASA used on an uncrewed mission to the moon last November, don’t usually have the luxury of having a blast while learning.
“Because of that, government programs aren’t allowed to operate in this way because we’re giving all stakeholders the ability to monitor and tell you no,” Mr Dumbacher said.
Back on the beach, those in attendance took the day’s results in stride.
“Would it be great if it didn’t blow up?” Lauren Posey, 34, said. But it’s still great. “
james dobbins Reporting from South Padre Island, Texas.