SpaceX’s second high-altitude test flight of its Starship super-rocket prototype looked picture-perfect until the fiery crash at the very end.
In that sense, today’s up-and-down launch for SN9 echoed last month’s test of SN8. The 160-foot-tall rocket rose majestically from SpaceX’s Boca Chica test facility in South Texas, climbed to a maximum altitude of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles), hovered for a few moments and then went horizontal for an aerodynamic descent at subsonic speeds.
The rocket was programmed to fire up its methane-fueled Raptor engines and flip itself back to a vertical position, just moments before touchdown. Video of the test flight showed SN9 pitching over, but failing to straighten itself. As a result, the massive rocket belly-flopped onto its landing pad, exploding in a huge fiery cloud.
During today’s webcast, SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker insisted the flight wasn’t a flop. He pointed out that the test was designed to try out all of Starship’s systems, from the three Raptors to the flight control system and its stabilizing flaps.
“We had, again, another great flight up to the 10-kilometer apogee. We demonstrated the ability to transition the engines to the landing propellant tanks. The subsonic re-entry looked very good and stable,” he said. “Again, we’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit.”
Observers said it looked as if one of SN9’s three Raptor engines malfunctioned during the crucial final maneuver. Rocket scientist Scott Manley noted that a slow-motion view of Starship’s flip seemed to show pieces of debris flying off from the skirt of the suspect engine.
Although the blow-up looked scary, there were no reports of injuries at the pad. And SpaceX’s next Starship prototype, SN10, appeared to stand undamaged not far from the blast site.
SpaceX is working up to sending future Starships into orbit starting as early as this year — and launching them to the moon by 2024 or so with the aid of a yet-to-be-tested Super Heavy booster. Eventually, the company envisions using a fleet of refuelable Starship and Super Heavy rockets to send thousands of settlers to Mars.
The testing strategy calls for building a succession of prototypes and rapidly testing them. If one rocket fails, the lessons are quickly incorporated into the preparations for the next prototype’s launch.
SpaceX’s haste has occasionally created controversy. For example, this week’s Starship launch was temporarily held up due to a dispute with the Federal Aviation Administration.
The FAA said SpaceX went ahead with last month’s SN8 launch under conditions that were riskier than initially planned, even though the agency denied the required waiver. As a result, the FAA withheld its permission for the SN9 launch until SpaceX conducted an investigation of the earlier crash and took corrective actions.
On the eve of today’s launch, the FAA gave its OK, saying that SpaceX was in compliance “with all safety and related federal regulations.”
After the SN9 crash, CNBC quoted the FAA as saying in a statement that it would “oversee the investigation of today’s landing mishap.”
Unless the FAA’s investigation forces a hold, SpaceX could move on to SN10’s launch later this month. “We’ll be back with another Starship,” Insprucker promised.