Elon Musk’s space travel company SpaceX launched its Starship rocket from a South Texas beach on Saturday, a giant vehicle that will change the future of space transportation and help NASA return astronauts to the moon.
Saturday’s flight of Starship, the powerful vehicle designed to carry NASA astronauts to the moon, was not a complete success. SpaceX did not achieve the ultimate mission of the test launch – a partial trip around the world ending in a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
But the vehicle’s second test flight showed that the company has fixed major issues that surfaced during the previous test run in April. All 33 engines on the vehicle’s lower booster stage fired, and the rocket made it through stage separation—the booster fell and the upper stage’s six engines flashed as they carried the vehicle into space.
SpaceX engineer and live launch commentator John Insbrucker said on a SpaceX webcast.
In contrast, the first starship launch badly damaged the launch pad; Several engines on the booster failed, the fire knocked out the rocket’s rudder and the flight stop system took too long to detonate.
According to SpaceX’s “fail fast, learn fast” approach to rocket design, successfully avoiding past failures is considered a big improvement.
However, the second flight Mr. Musk revealed new challenges for engineers to overcome.
Shortly after the stage separated, the booster exploded – a “rapid unplanned extraction” in rocket engineers’ jargon. The upper-stage Starship continued to orbit for several more minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 90 miles, but then SpaceX lost contact with it after the flight termination system exploded.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that no injuries or property damage were reported. It will conduct an accident investigation, which is standard if anything goes wrong with the commercial rocket.
Engineers must now understand what went wrong with both the booster and the upper-stage spacecraft, make corrections, and then try again.
Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever flown. SpaceX aims to make both parts of the vehicle fully and quickly reusable. It provides the ability to launch large and heavy payloads into space, significantly reducing the cost of carrying satellites, space telescopes, humans and life-sustaining objects in space.
The end of the test drive, Mr. It’s the latest split-screen moment in the career of Musk, a serial entrepreneur who previously pioneered electronic payments with PayPal and electric cars with Tesla. As SpaceX prepares to take off on Friday, Disney and Apple have suspended ad spending with another company, Social Network X, formerly known as Twitter.
Many outside observers are optimistic that the SpaceX starship will be fully operational.
“They’ve fixed the issues identified in their first flight and are more advanced than ever before in this type of vehicle,” said Bill Larson, who served as a White House space adviser during President Barack Obama’s administration and later worked on communications efforts at SpaceX. “The magic of engineering is that it learns, iterates the design, and iterates as quickly as possible.”
American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Executive Director Daniel L. Dumbacher agreed. “It’s a big launch system,” he said. “It’s going to take some work to get it where it needs to go. I have no doubt that the SpaceX team will be able to figure out how to make the launch vehicle work.
Two hours before sunrise on Saturday, liquid oxygen and liquid methane began flowing into the starship. There was some fog near the ground, but the sky above was clear, except for a few cirrus clouds.
With 40 seconds left on the countdown clock, the planned hold was called off. Then the hold was released, and as the final seconds ticked away, just after 7 a.m. Central Time, the 400-foot-tall rocket rose slowly into the sky. A new water deluge system appears to have protected the launch pad, barring the clouds of dust and debris that arose in April.
Seconds later, there was a rhythmic roar as observers watched on South Padre Island, about five miles north of the launch site.
After 2 minutes, 48 seconds of liftoff, there was a flash as the starship successfully performed what was expected to be the trickiest part of the flight — “hot staging,” where the upper stage’s six engines ignited before the booster dropped. Loud cheers echoed from a SpaceX webcast streaming from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Half a minute later, there was a huge flash as the booster exploded, splashing and sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. The upper stage continued unscathed. But minutes later, the webcast fell into an awkward silence when the starship lost contact with the vehicle.
Many of the thousands of people who woke up early in the morning for the launch on South Padre Island said they enjoyed the sight. At 4:30 a.m., a long line of cars waited in the dark to enter Isla Blanca Park at the southern tip of South Padre. Others walked from their hotels to avoid the traffic. Boats full of spectators floated south outside the exclusion zone to the east.
The launch was enjoyed not only by beach-side watchers, but also by those far away.
Emma Guevara, who lives in Brownsville, a South Texas town west of the SpaceX launch pad, said the event shook her home.
“It was earlier than we all expected, so it woke everyone up,” said Ms. Guevara, a Sierra Club organizer and protester at the company’s site.
Top NASA officials congratulated SpaceX.
“Each test brings the #ArtemisIII starship one step closer to putting the first woman on the moon with a human landing system.” Jim Free, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, Wrote in X. “We look forward to seeing what we can learn from this trial, which moves us to the next milestone.”
How quickly SpaceX fixes the Starship problems could determine how soon NASA astronauts return to the moon.
The space agency has hired SpaceX to convert a Starship into a lunar lander to take two astronauts to the moon’s south polar regions. Even before the latest Starship test flight, it was already thought that the first landing, currently scheduled for late 2025, could slip to 2026. SpaceX is under contract to provide the Starship lander for a second crewed landing planned for 2028.
To land on the moon, SpaceX would need nearly 20 launches of the spacecraft, not just one starship, because a moon-bound starship would need to refill its propulsion power tanks before leaving Earth orbit.
To that end, SpaceX is planning two Starship variants.
One would be an orbital gas station in space—a propellant depot in the parlance of the space business. Another would be a tanker version that would transport methane and liquid oxygen to a gas station. Continuous tanker flights are required to fill the gas station. A spacecraft bound for the Moon or Mars will launch and arrive at a propellant depot to fill its tanks. But no one has yet attempted to launch tons of propellants in a zero-gravity environment.
As a depot orbits the Earth, it passes in and out of sunlight, and the exterior of the depot is repeatedly heated and cooled. Maintaining propellants at constant, ultracold temperatures within the depot can be challenging.
At a meeting of the NASA Advisory Board on Friday, Lakisha Hawkins, NASA’s assistant deputy associate administrator, said the number of Starship launches would be in the “high-teens.”
Starships will launch “on a six-day cycle” from both Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the current Starship launch pad in Texas, Ms. Hawkins said.
NASA has a backup. This year, it selected a second lunar lander design from Blue Origin, a Kent, Wash.-based rocket company founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. That design is smaller and is planned for use in a third lunar landing, which won’t happen before 2029.
Ryan Mack And Katrina Miller Contributed report.