A giant experimental rocket built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully soared eight miles above the company’s testing facilities in South Texas on Wednesday and came back down as planned, before crashing into the ground in an enormous plume of flames and smoke. The hulking rocket didn’t have anyone on board. It was an early developmental model of Starship, a 160-foot-tall spaceship proposed by Musk that he hopes will be used for hauling massive satellites into Earth’s orbit, shuttling people between cities at breakneck speeds, and — eventually — establishing a human settlement on Mars.
The test flight marked the highest test flight yet of the technology Musk hopes will one day ferry the first humans to go to Mars, and a fiery ending was not totally unexpected. Musk attempted to dampen expectations before the flight, saying in one tweet that he predicted the “SN8” vehicle, the name for the Starship prototype used Wednesday, had a one-in-three chance of landing safely back on Earth.
The SN8 did manage to maneuver back to its landing target, but Musk said via Twitter that an issue with the rocket’s fuel system caused it to make a crash landing. Green and yellow flames engulfed the landing site, which lies just outsides the small coastal town of Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX and Musk are known to embrace mishaps during the early stages of new spacefaring technology development.
The company’s ethos is to move quickly and learn from errors, rather than taking the more NASA-esque approach of slowly conducting thorough research and ground tests before putting a rocket on a launchpad. Several previous Starship prototypes were destroyed during pressure tests, which are designed to check whether a vehicle can withstand the enormous pressure it undergoes during fueling and in flight.
SpaceX did not reveal before flight exactly how the test was supposed to look, but shortly after liftoff, one of the Starship SN8’s three engines shut off. That did not appear to drastically affect the spacecraft’s maneuvering while in the air. When all three engines powered down, the vehicle was able to orient itself at an angle during decent — a move that Musk previewed during a September 2019 presentation, billing it as a spacecraft landing method that mimics a skydiver falling through the air. Musk said he hopes a fully operational Starship would tilt about 60 degrees, putting its belly down toward the Earth, as it plunged back through the atmosphere in order to make it less aerodynamic and reduce its speed. Then, just before landing, the vehicle would swing back into the upright position and land gently on a ground pad.
SpaceX had previously tried twice this week to launch the test flight, but both of the first attempts were halted with just moments left on the countdown clock. It was not clear why SpaceX halted the launches, though last-minute scrubs are not uncommon even during routine rocket launches. Computers or flight controllers may have caught an abnormal reading about the rocket’s health and stopped the engines from igniting. The company is still a long way from building an operational Starship spacecraft. So far, it has constructed various prototypes that have been used to test how well their steel frames perform under pressure and to conduct suborbital “hop tests,” which have tested how the rocket’s gargantuan engines can steer the vehicle to soft, pinpoint landings after the flight. Musk has said the technique is essential for recovering and reusing the vehicles as well as one day conducting a controlled landing on the Moon or Mars.
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