SpaceX, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company, launched its Starship rocket from the coast of South Texas on Saturday, a massive vehicle that could change the future of space transportation and help NASA return astronauts to the Moon.
Saturday’s flight of the Starship, a powerful vehicle designed to carry NASA astronauts to the Moon, was not a complete success. SpaceX failed to achieve the ultimate goal of the test launch: a partial circumnavigation ending with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
But the test flight, the vehicle’s second, showed the company had fixed key issues that emerged during the previous test in April. All 33 engines in the vehicle’s lower booster stage have started and the rocket has successfully cleared the stage separation – when the booster falls and the six engines in the upper stage ignite to carry the vehicle into the space.
“Simply beautiful,” John Insprucker, SpaceX engineer and live launch commentator, said during the SpaceX webcast.
In contrast, the first Starship launch severely damaged the launch site; several booster engines failed, fires destroyed the rocket’s steering, and the flight termination system took too long to explode.
Under SpaceX’s “fail fast, learn faster” approach to rocket design, successfully avoiding a repeat of past failures constitutes major progress.
However, the second flight revealed new challenges for Mr. Musk’s engineers to overcome.
Shortly after the stages separated, the booster exploded – a “rapid and unscheduled disassembly,” in rocket engineer jargon. The upper stage Starship spacecraft continued toward orbit for several more minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 90 miles, but SpaceX then lost contact with it after the termination system exploded. flight.
In a statement, the Federal Aviation Administration said no injuries or property damage were reported. It will conduct an accident investigation, which is common whenever a problem arises with a commercial rocket.
Engineers will now have to decipher what went wrong on both the booster and the upper stage spacecraft, make fixes, and then try again.
Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched. SpaceX aims to make both parts of the vehicle fully and quickly reusable. This gives it the potential to launch larger, heavier payloads into space and significantly reduce the cost of lifting satellites, space telescopes, people and the objects they need to live in space.
The result of the test trip was the latest split-screen moment in the career of Mr. Musk, a serial entrepreneur who previously transformed electronic payments with PayPal and electric cars with Tesla. As SpaceX prepared for flight Friday, Disney and Apple suspended their advertising spending with another of his companies, the social network X, formerly known as Twitter, after Mr. Musk approved an anti-Semitic post Wednesday.
Many outside observers are optimistic that SpaceX will allow Starship to fully operate.
“They’ve fixed the problems identified on their first flight and gone further than ever before with this type of vehicle,” said Phil Larson, who served as a White House space adviser during President Barack Obama’s administration and then worked on communications efforts at SpaceX. “The magic of engineering is that it’s all about learning, iterating the design and flying again soon.”
Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, agrees. “This is a big launch system,” he said. “It’s going to take some work to get where it needs to go.” I have no doubt that the SpaceX team will be able to figure out how to make the launch vehicle work. »
Hours before sunrise Saturday, liquid oxygen and liquid methane began flowing into the spacecraft. There was some fog near the ground but the sky above was clear except for a few wisps of cirrus.
The countdown went smoothly, stopping at a scheduled wait with 40 seconds left on the countdown. Then the hold was lifted, the final seconds ticked off, and shortly after 7 a.m. central time, the 400-foot-tall rocket slowly rose into the sky. A new water deluge system appears to have protected the launch pad, thus preventing the cloud of dust and debris which increased in April.
Seconds later, the percussive roar shook spectators watching on South Padre Island, about five miles north of the launch site.
Two minutes and 48 seconds after liftoff, there was a flash as Starship successfully completed what was supposed to be the trickiest part of the flight: the “warm-up,” when the upper stage’s six engines ignited before the propellant fell. Loud cheers rang out during SpaceX’s webcast, broadcast from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Half a minute later, a more powerful flash occurred as the booster – which was expected to crash into the Gulf of Mexico and sink – exploded. The upper floor continued on its way unscathed. But minutes later, the webcast fell into uncomfortable silence when contact was lost with the Starship vehicle.
Many of the thousands of people who woke up early to watch the launch on South Padre Island said they enjoyed the spectacle. Around 4:30 a.m., a long line of cars waited in the dark to enter Isla Blanca Park on the southern end of South Padre. Others left their hotels on foot to avoid traffic. Boats full of guards floated just to the south, outside the exclusion zone to the east.
The launch was experienced not only by those watching along the coast, but also by those further afield.
Emma Guevara, a resident of Brownsville, the south Texas city, looking west from the SpaceX launch site, said the event shook his house.
“It was way earlier than expected, so it woke everyone up,” said Ms. Guevara, who is a Sierra Club organizer and who protested the operations at the company base.
Top NASA officials congratulated SpaceX.
“Each test represents one step closer to sending the first woman to the Moon with the #Artemis III Starship human landing system. “, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, written the. “I look forward to seeing what we can learn from this test that takes us closer to the next step.”
How quickly SpaceX fixes the Starship’s problems could determine how soon NASA astronauts return to the Moon.
The space agency hired SpaceX to adapt Starship into a lunar lander to take two astronauts to the Moon’s south polar regions. Even before Starship’s latest test flight, the first landing, currently scheduled for late 2025, was already considered likely to slip to 2026. SpaceX is also under contract to provide a Starship lander for the second crewed landing, planned for 2028.
For the moon landing, SpaceX would need not just one spacecraft, but nearly 20 spacecraft launches, because a spacecraft heading to the moon would need to fill its propellant tanks before leaving Earth’s orbit.
For this, SpaceX is planning two other Starship variants.
One of these will essentially be an orbital fueling station in space – a propellant depot in space business parlance. The other will be a tanker version to transport methane and liquid oxygen to the gas station. A series of tanker flights will be needed to fill the gas station. A spacecraft heading to the Moon or Mars will launch and dock at the propellant depot and fill its tanks. But no one has yet tried pumping tons of propellant in a weightless environment.
As a deposit orbits the Earth, it passes in and out of sunlight, and the exterior of the deposit heats and cools repeatedly. Keeping the thrusters at stable, ultra-cold temperatures inside the depot will be a challenge.
At a NASA Advisory Council committee meeting Friday, Lakiesha Hawkins, deputy deputy associate administrator at NASA, said the number of Starship launches would be in the “teens.”
The Starships would launch “on a six-day rotation” from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the current Starship launch site in Texas, Ms. Hawkins said.
NASA has a backup. This year, it selected a second lunar lander model from Blue Origin — the Kent, Washington-based rocket company created by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. This design is smaller and is expected to be used during the third lunar landing, which will take place no earlier than 2029.
Ryan Mac And Katrina Miller reports contributed.