A SpaceX Starship prototype exploded from southern Texas on Wednesday, climbed to a height of six miles, overturned on the side as planned and threw itself back to earth in a swan dive at high altitude, turned vertically and then landed successfully near the launch pad. A few minutes later it exploded in a spectacular fireball.
It was the company’s third high-altitude Starship test aircraft and the first successful landing. But the rocket lay with a slight tilt, and a fire could be seen at the foot near the engine compartment. Moments later, the non-piloted prototype – SN10 – exploded and showered the pad with flaming debris.
Despite the explosion, the successful landing marked an important milestone for SpaceX founder Elon Musk at his station to develop a fully reusable heavy lift rocket, although it showed the risks associated with an aggressive test program.
“The SpaceX team is doing a great job! One day, the real goal of success will be for Starship flights to be regular,” Musk tweeted.
Speaking just before SpaceX ended the launch webcast – and before the rocket exploded – company commentator John Insprucker said, “the third time is the charm, as the saying goes.”
“We have had a successful soft touch of the landing site, and have thanks to a beautiful test flight with Starship 10,” he said. “As a reminder, a key point in today’s test flight was to collect data on checking the vehicle as we re-entered, and we were successful in doing so.”
He concluded by congratulating the launch team in Texas and said, “They have steadily increased their test launch over the course of the program and have delivered some of the most exciting test flights many of us have seen in a long time.”
Given three dramatic launches and explosions in a row, will have to argue.
The reflection of the two previously unsuccessful test flights, the Starship prototype, known as serial number 10 or SN10, exploded from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch site at 18:14 ET and climbed through a mostly clear sky using three SpaceX-designed Raptor engines.
Liftoff came about two hours after the engines ignited for a first launch attempt, but shut down the computer command a moment later. Musk said the limitations of the software engine were “a bit conservative,” engineers made an adjustment, and the team pushed forward with a new launch attempt.
By burning liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen, it seemed that the ascent went smoothly, and when the rocket rose, one engine, then two, shut down as planned.
The third engine reached a maximum altitude of about six miles four and a half minutes after lifting, and the Starship immediately tilted to the side and began to plunge back to the ground.
Using computer-controlled fins in the nose and tail to maintain orientation, Starship made a horizontal dive, traced all the way by powerful cameras powered by SpaceX and several independent space enthusiasts.
As it approached the ground, the Starship engines restarted and the rocket turned back to vertical, as programmed for a first touchdown using a single engine. Despite a small slope and the flame briefly seen at the bottom of the rocket, the test flight seemed to be a complete success.
“As we approached the landing site, we successfully ignited the three Raptor engines to perform that flip maneuver, and then shut down two of them and landed on the single engine as planned,” said Insprucker. “A beautiful soft landing by Starship at the landing site at Boca Chica.”
He said the Starship SN11 is “ready to roll out in the near future. It’s an inspiring time for the future of human spaceflight.”
The rocket launched on Wednesday is a prototype for the second stage of a giant rocket consisting of a 230 meter high “Super Heavy” first stage that generates 16 million pounds of thrust with 28 Raptor engines, more than twice the power of NASA’s legendary Saturn 5 moon rocket. A prototype of the first stage has not yet been completed.
The rocket’s second 160-foot rocket, also confusingly known as Starship, will use half a dozen Raptor engines capable of increasing 100 tons of payload to a low-ground orbit. In comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket can launch around 30 tons.
As with the last two test flights of Starships, the SN10 was a prototype of the Starship second stage, this one with only three Raptor engines.
At least three versions of Starship are planned: one to carry heavy payloads to Earth’s orbit, the moon or Mars; one designed to carry fuels for refueling; and one that can carry up to 100 passengers at a time.