Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starship exploded into a ball of fire on 4/20 during its second failed orbital launch in a week.
The world’s largest and most powerful rocket – which was unmanned – lifted off in South Texas and successfully cleared the launchpad, its first milestone.
But the craft was sent into a tailspin when the rocket failed to separate over the Gulf of Mexico. The mission ended at around four minutes when the failure sent the craft crashing toward Earth, imploding mid-descent.
Despite the craft going up in flames, the team at SpaceX reportedly cracked out champagne bottles and chanted ‘go Starship’ after the explosion.
The company’s leadership – including Musk – has repeatedly stressed the experimental nature of the launch and said any result that involved Starship getting off the launchpad would be a success.
The mission was always due to end with the destruction of the Starship rocket, which was supposed to orbit the earth for about an hour before crashing into the Pacific.
But any setbacks will still be hugely expensive. Musk has said the entire program will cost anywhere from $3 billion to $10 billion.
But Musk himself was braced for a failed launch, claiming last month that there was a 50 percent chance his spacecraft could explode during the test flight.
The billionaire congratulated the SpaceX team on Twitter about 20 minutes after the craft went up in flames.
Musk tweeted: ‘Congrats @SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months.’
SpaceX then shared on Twitter that its team will review data and work toward another flight for the rocket.
‘As if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation,’ SpaceX tweeted.
‘With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary.’
Starship was the tallest rocket ever built, around the size of a 40-story building.
The mission was supposed to see the craft blast 150 miles high into the atmosphere before cruising for an hour and crashing into the Pacific Ocean.
The mission took off with promise when Starship ignited its 33 Raptor engines and lifted off the launch pad at the Boca Chica, Texas, facility at 1,242 miles per hour.
Cheers erupted in the control room as staff and hundreds of thousands of viewers worldwide watched the massive vehicle leave the ground.
And it reached a height of around 25 miles above the earth.
The rocket was supposed to separate so the booster would then fall back to earth and into the Gulf of Mexico.
But the separation failed, sending the rocket into a spin and within seconds, the rocket detonated over the ocean.
Despite failing to complete the full flight test, SpaceX declared it a success.
‘We cleared the tower, which was our only hope,’ said Kate Tice, a SpaceX quality systems engineer, during the live-streamed event.
‘With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship´s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary,’ SpaceX tweeted.
Starship consists of a 164-foot (50-meter) tall spacecraft designed to carry crew and cargo that sits atop a 230-foot tall first-stage Super Heavy booster rocket.
‘If we get far enough away from the launchpad before something goes wrong, then I think I would consider that to be a success,’ Musk said before the flight. ‘Just don’t blow up the launchpad.’
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also congratulated SpaceX.
‘Congrats to SpaceX on Starship’s first integrated flight test! Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward. Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test—and beyond,’ Nelson shared in a tweet.
Unlike NASA, SpaceX is a private company and launching a massive rocket is seen as a success.
Musk’s company also works faster in developing rockets than the American space agency, so to the billionaire, one lost in the name of science is more information gained.
SpaceX engineers and technicians spent about eight months building the first Starship prototype, whereas it took six to seven years to complete the Saturn V rocket.
NASA also awards contracts to companies to build its rockets, which also takes time and funding from the government.
This was the second attempt at the first orbital launch. Monday was the initial date, but the mission was postponed due to a glitch moments before takeoff.
Musk has said that SpaceX is building several more Starship rockets and that overall he believes there is an 80 percent chance one of them will reach orbit before the end of the year.
The mission – which would have sent Starship around Earth once before it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii – would have been an early milestone in Musk’s ambition for the craft to carry people and cargo to the moon and Mars.
Starship is both bigger and more powerful than SLS and capable of lifting a payload of more than 100 metric tonnes into orbit.
It generates 17 million pounds of thrust, more than twice that of the Saturn V rockets used to send Apollo astronauts to the Moon.
No spaceship is currently capable of sending humans to the Red Planet – but all that could change with the development of Starship.
Its creation is part of Musk’s grander vision of making us a ‘multi-planetary species’, first by starting a human colony on Mars and eventually building cities.
That may seem ambitious, but the tech supremo’s long-term objective for Starship is to carry people to destinations in the ‘greater Solar System’, including gas giants such as Jupiter or one of its possibly-habitable moons.
The thinking is that if there were ever a global apocalypse on Earth, the human race would have a better chance of survival if people lived on different worlds in our solar system.
Starship will be capable of carrying up to 100 people to the Red Planet on a journey that is 250 times further than the moon and would take around nine months each way.
Musk and SpaceX have remained tight-lipped about a lot of the details regarding Starship, including images of what the inside will look like.
Still, the 51-year-old has previously said he wants to install around 40 cabins in the payload area near the front of the upper stage.
‘You could conceivably have five or six people per cabin, if you really wanted to crowd people in,’ the Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter boss added.
‘But I think mostly we would expect to see two or three people per cabin, and so nominally about 100 people per flight to Mars.’
The Martian surface is not the only destination for Starship, however.
In April 2021, NASA announced that it had selected SpaceX’s next-generation vehicle as the first crewed lunar lander for its Artemis III mission — due to put the first woman and first person of color on the moon in 2025.
The Starship HLS – or Starship Human Landing System – will include SpaceX’s Raptor engines while also pulling inspiration from the Falcon and Dragon vehicles’ designs.
It will feature a spacious cabin and two airlocks for astronaut moonwalks.
However, 2025 will not be the Starship HLS’ first moon landing. That’s because NASA wants the vehicle to perform an uncrewed test touchdown before it returns human boots to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972.
The other uses for Starship are to deposit satellites into low-Earth orbit and possibly carry out space tourism trips.
Musk has promised a trip around the moon to the Japanese online retail billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who announced that a crew of eight artists would be joining him for the dearMoon mission at the end of last year.
It is currently scheduled for sometime this year, but with Starship not yet having completed a successful orbital launch, that date seems poised to slip.
Musk has previously estimated the total development cost of the Starship project to be between $2 billion and $10 billion.
He later said it would probably be ‘closer to two or three [billion] than it is to 10.’
The idea for the Super Heavy dates back to November 2005, when Musk first discussed his desire to create a rocket he then termed BFR or Big F***ing rocket.
Since then, other SpaceX launch vehicles have followed, all building up to the development of the Super Heavy.