On Saturday, SpaceX launched the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, Starship, whose two stages successfully separated before an “anomaly” caused them to explode.
“Nominal Starship Trajectory,” we could hear on the SpaceX live video feed, minutes after the rocket took off. The first launch in the spring ended with a gigantic explosion.
The massive 120-meter-tall rocket lifted off the ground shortly after 7:00 a.m. local time (1:00 p.m. GMT) from SpaceX’s base in Boca Chica, in far south Texas.
The Starship module, mounted atop the rocket, successfully separated from the Super Heavy booster stage, but both parts of the rocket did not survive the planned descent and exploded in flight, according to SpaceX.
The rocket consists of two stages: the Super Heavy propulsion stage and its 33 engines, and the Starship spacecraft that is located above and after which the entire rocket is named. During the first test, the two stages failed to separate in flight before succeeding on Saturday.
The US air regulator, the FAA, said in a statement that there was an “incident” during the flight. “The anomaly led to the loss of the machine,” adds the agency, which specifies that there are no reports of injuries or other material damage.
“The FAA will oversee the investigation conducted by SpaceX” to determine the cause of the incident, the agency added, which will have to approve the investigation’s findings and corrective actions by SpaceX before approving any new Starship launches.
“A fantastic partial success”
For aerospace analyst Laura Seward Forczyk, “it was a fantastic partial success.” This launch “exceeded my expectations”, she explains to AFP.
The second test flight of SpaceX, billionaire Elon Musk’s company, is being watched particularly closely by NASA, which is counting on the craft for its moon return missions.
The head of the US space agency, Bill Nelson, congratulated SpaceX on Saturday for the “progress” made in this launch, referring to the “opportunity to learn and then fly again”.
On April 20, Starship flew for the first time in full configuration. But several engines did not work, and SpaceX deliberately blew up the rocket after four minutes.
The takeoff sent a cloud of dust several kilometers from the launch pad, which itself was badly damaged. Pieces of concrete were catapulted by the power of the engine, and a fire broke out in the nearby regional park.
The FAA opened an investigation before finally giving the green light for the second flight on Wednesday.
However, the associations sued the FAA separately, accusing it of misjudging the new rocket’s environmental impact.
For SpaceX, the explosion of the prototypes is less of an image problem than it would be for NASA and its public funds, according to experts. Carrying out tests in short intervals allows you to speed up the development of your machines.
But the development of Starship does not seem fast enough to fit into the plans of NASA, which has signed a contract with SpaceX. A modified version of the machine is to serve as a lunar lander to place astronauts on the surface of the moon for the first time since 1972.
This mission, called Artemis 3, is officially planned for 2025 – a date that seems increasingly unrealistic.
Beyond the moon, Elon Musk wants to make Starship “a widespread means of transportation to any destination in the solar system,” including Mars.
His goal is to establish an autonomous colony on the red planet, so that humanity will become a multiplanetary species.
But the real innovation of the Starship is that it must be completely reusable, with two stages designed to eventually return to their launch pad — keeping costs down. Currently, only the first stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket has been found.
Starship is larger than NASA’s new megarocket SLS (98 m), which first flew a year ago, and the legendary Saturn V, the rocket for the Apollo lunar program (111 m).
The takeoff thrust of the Starship is also roughly twice that of the two launchers.