SpaceX’s Starship and its Super Heavy booster blew through the primary objective for their second test flight today, but both rocket stages blew up sooner than the company hoped.
SpaceX took the day as a win — based not only on a successful liftoff from its South Texas launch pad a little after 7 a.m. CT (5 a.m. PT), but also on the successful execution of a hot-stage separation maneuver two and a half minutes after launch.
The procedure was added to the routine after the fireworks of the Starship / Super Heavy launch system’s first test in April, which ended with the destruction of the rocket four minutes into the flight.
This time around, the Starship second stage lit up its six Raptor engines in the midst of separating from the Super Heavy first-stage booster. Launch commentator John Insprucker said the hot-stage separation was “just beautiful, exactly what we were looking for.”
SpaceX’s flight plan called for the booster to use a few of its 33 Raptors to guide itself through re-entry and make a “soft” splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, the Super Heavy exploded less than a minute after separation at an altitude of 56 miles (90 kilometers).
The webcast view of the booster lit up with clouds of debris, and SpaceX commentator Kate Tice said, “As you can see, the Super Heavy booster has just experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
The second stage, known as Ship, continued onward on a trajectory that SpaceX said would have reached orbital speeds. If the test flight had gone as planned, Ship would have circled the globe and made a controlled splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
Instead, Ship went out of contact with SpaceX’s mission control about eight minutes after liftoff, at an altitude of 92 miles (148 kilometers).
“The automated flight termination system on second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn as we were headed downrange out over the Gulf of Mexico,” Insprucker said.
SpaceX said the Starship team will take the data transmitted during the shortened test flight, figure out what went wrong, and make changes to the launch system for a third test flight yet to be scheduled. “That’s why we flight-test,” SpaceX engineer Siva Bharadvaj said.
The Federal Aviation Administration noted that a mishap occurred during launch. “The anomaly resulted in a loss of the vehicle,” the FAA said. “No injuries or public property damage have been reported.”
“The FAA will oversee the SpaceX-led mishap investigation to ensure SpaceX complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements,” the agency said in its statement. The FAA will have to approve SpaceX’s final report, including corrective actions, in advance of the next test launch.
After the first Starship / Super Heavy test flight, SpaceX installed a water-cooled steel plate at the launch pad to reduce the damage done by the booster’s blast, and that system appeared to work as planned.
The Starship / Super Heavy rocket combination is the world’s most powerful launch system, with 16.7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff. It’s designed to send up to 150 tons of payload to low Earth orbit in a reusable configuration, or 250 tons in expendable mode. In comparison, the space shuttle’s payload capacity was 25 tons.
More importantly, SpaceX aims to use Starship to send people and payloads to the moon, Mars and other off-Earth destinations. A version of Starship is being developed for NASA’s use as a lunar lander, under the terms of a $2.9 billion contract.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on the progress that was made during today’s test in a posting to X / Twitter, the social-media platform that’s owned by SpaceX founder Elon Musk:
Congrats to the teams who made progress on today’s flight test.
Spaceflight is a bold adventure demanding a can-do spirit and daring innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn—then fly again.
— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) November 18, 2023
If SpaceX can stick to its schedule, Starship would carry astronauts down to the moon’s surface for the Artemis program’s first crewed landing in the 2025 time frame. (That schedule is in doubt, however.)
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa had hoped to lead a crew of eight on a Starship round-the-moon trip this year — but last week, Maezawa acknowledged that the schedule was up in the air and said his flight was postponed indefinitely.
Musk has said Starship could carry 100 people at a time to Mars to fulfill his long-term vision of creating a city on Mars and turning humanity into a multiplanet species.