SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype launched on Tuesday, soaring miles above its South Texas facilities in a successful flight demonstration before exploding during the landing attempt. It’s the second failed landing in a row, after a previous prototype, SN8, launched and failed to stick the landing in December.
This week’s launch demo one of many in the books already follows weeks of tension between SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration, which approves test launches like this one. During its high-altitude test launch with SN8 two months ago, the company violated its FAA launch license. This triggered an investigation that held up today’s SN9 flight and frustrated SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
The full-scale stainless steel rocket reached its intended altitude of 6.2 miles (10km), slightly lower than the last one. Everything seemed to be going well as the 160ft (50m) Starship flipped on its side and began its descent. But it did not manage to straighten itself back up in time for a landing and slammed into the ground.
“We’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit,” said SpaceX launch commentator John Insprucker. “Reminder this is a test flight.”
The next Starship stood nearby at the launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, during Tuesday’s test, which lasted six and a half minutes.
Musk is developing Starship to carry people to Mars, perhaps in as little as several years. It’s the upper stage of his intended moon- and Mars-ships, meant to launch atop a mega rocket called Super Heavy that is still being developed.
SpaceX tried to launch Starship last week, but failed to get the necessary approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, prompting a Twitter outburst from Musk.
SpaceX did not comply with safety regulations for the 9 December flight, an FAA spokesperson said Tuesday, and needed to take corrective action before proceeding with launch operations. Tuesday’s flight met all safety criteria, according to the FAA.
The SN9 slammed into the ground at a roughly 45-degree angle, perishing in an explosive fireball just like SN8. “We had another great flight up to the 10km apogee… we’ve just gotta work on that landing a little bit,” said SpaceX engineer John Insprucker, who usually only narrates the company’s live video feeds for routine Falcon 9 launches.
The FAA opened an investigation into the SN9 landing explosion, it said in a statement Tuesday night, adding that “although this was an uncrewed test flight, the investigation will identify the root cause of today’s mishap and possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops.”
The landing explosion sprayed debris on SN10, another Starship prototype that stood ready for SpaceX’s next test flight. The company wheeled SN10 out of its towering, rocket-shaped facilities last Friday night to make room for future prototype construction.
On the live stream, Insprucker reminded SpaceX’s audience that the SN9 flight, though it ended in a dramatic explosion, was a test, and a number of test objectives were met. It was the “second time we’ve flown Starship in this configuration, we’ve got a lot of good data, and the primary objective to demonstrate control of the vehicle in the subsonic re-entry looked to be very good. And we will take a lot out of that,” he said.