Space Exploration Technologies Corp (SpaceX) on Saturday launched its mega rocket Starship, but lost both the booster and the spacecraft in a pair of explosions minutes into the test flight.
The rocket ship reached space following liftoff from south Texas before communication was suddenly lost.
SpaceX officials said it appeared the ship’s self-destruct system blew it up over the Gulf of Mexico.
Minutes earlier, the separated booster had exploded over the gulf. By then, its job was already done.
Saturday’s demo lasted about eight minutes, about twice as long as the first test in April, which also ended in an explosion. The latest flight came to an end as the ship’s six engines were almost done firing to put it on an around-the-world path.
At nearly 121m, Starship is the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, with the goal of ferrying people to the moon and Mars.
“The real topping on the cake today, that successful liftoff,” SpaceX engineer John Insprucker said, adding that all 33 booster engines fired as designed, unlike last time.
The booster also separated seamlessly from the spaceship, which reached an altitude of 148km.
“We got so much data, and that will all help us to improve for our next flight,” SpaceX quality systems engineer Kate Tice said.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk watched from behind launch controllers at the southern tip of Texas near the Mexico border, near Boca Chica Beach. At the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California, employees cheered as Starship soared at daybreak. The room grew quiet once it was clear the spaceship had been destroyed.
SpaceX had been aiming for an altitude of 240km, just high enough to send the bullet-shaped spacecraft around the globe before ditching into the Pacific near Hawaii about one-and-a-half hours after liftoff, short of a full orbit.
Following April’s flight demo, SpaceX made dozens of improvements to the rocket as well as the launch pad. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Wednesday cleared the rocket for flight, after confirming that all safety and environmental concerns had been met.
After Saturday’s launch, the FAA said that no injuries or public damage had been reported and that an investigation was under way to determine what went wrong.
SpaceX cannot launch another Starship until the review is complete and corrections made, the FAA added.
NASA is counting on Starship to land astronauts on the moon by the end of 2025 or shortly thereafter. The space agency awarded SpaceX a US$3 billion contract to make it happen, by transferring astronauts from its Orion capsule to Starship in lunar orbit before heading down to the surface.
“Today’s test is an opportunity to learn — then fly again,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
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