SpaceX’s ambitious Starship test flight, a cornerstone in the company’s vision for space exploration, ended prematurely this Saturday in a dramatic sequence of events, marked by the loss of both the rocket’s booster and core stages.
In what was a highly anticipated event, SpaceX’s Starship, the spacecraft designed to carry astronauts to the moon and beyond, faced a significant setback during its second test flight. The uncrewed mission, launching from the Starbase site near Boca Chica, Texas, aimed to demonstrate the capabilities of the largest rocket ever built, but ended abruptly with explosions in both the booster and spacecraft.
The Starship, soaring approximately 90 kilometres (55 miles) above the ground, aimed to complete a 90-minute flight into space. However, shortly after a successful liftoff, SpaceX’s live stream host John Insprucker announced a critical issue: “We have lost the data from the second stage… we think we may have lost the second stage.”
The initial part of the flight seemed promising, with the Super Heavy booster executing a crucial maneuver to separate from the core stage. However, it exploded over the Gulf of Mexico shortly after detaching. Simultaneously, the core Starship booster, now on its solo journey into space, lost contact with mission control about ten minutes into the flight.
This test was SpaceX’s second attempt to fly the Starship, mounted on its Super Heavy rocket booster, following a previous failed attempt in April, which ended in an explosion about four minutes after liftoff.
The launch drew significant attention, with SpaceX founder Elon Musk, also the chief executive and chief engineer, closely monitoring the event. According to SpaceX commentator John Insprucker, the first stage of the flight “looked beautiful,” but then the “automatic flight termination system appears to have triggered,” a mechanism designed to destroy Starship in case of flight anomalies.
SpaceX had aimed to demonstrate Starship’s ability to reach space, just shy of Earth’s orbit, a feat that would have been a significant milestone towards the company’s goal of creating a large, multi-purpose spacecraft. This ambition extends to sending people and cargo back to the moon and ultimately to Mars.
NASA, SpaceX’s primary customer and partner in the Artemis program, has vested interest in Starship’s success. The Artemis program, seen as the successor to the Apollo missions, relies heavily on Starship for future human spaceflight missions.
Despite the failure, the test flight provided valuable data. Kate Tice, another SpaceX commentator, remarked, “We got so much data, and that will all help us to improve for our next flight.” The flight’s principal objective was to test Starship’s capabilities in reaching near-orbit, then re-entering Earth’s atmosphere for a planned splashdown near Hawaii.
Following the test flight in April, where the spacecraft disintegrated less than four minutes into the flight, SpaceX made several improvements to both the rocket and the launch pad. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had cleared the rocket for Saturday’s flight, ensuring all safety and environmental concerns were addressed.
As SpaceX and the FAA review the incident to determine the cause of the failure, SpaceX is barred from conducting further Starship launches until the investigation concludes and necessary corrections are made.
The setback in Saturday’s test does not diminish SpaceX’s overarching goals. Elon Musk envisions Starship eventually replacing the Falcon 9 rocket as the centerpiece of SpaceX’s launch business, which is currently responsible for deploying most of the world’s satellites and other commercial payloads into space.