A prototype of a SpaceX rocket the company hopes will one day journey to the moon and Mars has exploded in a roaring ball of flames as it tried to land upright after a test flight in Texas. It was the second such accident after the last prototype of the Starship met a similar fate in December.
The Starship SN9, a self-guided, 16-story-tall rocket, initially soared into the clear, blue South Texas sky from its Gulf Coast launch pad on Tuesday, reaching its intended altitude of 6.2 miles (10 kilometers), slightly lower than the last one. Everything seemed to be going well as the spacecraft flipped on its side and began its descent.
It did not manage to straighten itself back up in time for a landing and slammed into the ground with a deafening crash, exploding into bright orange flames and a dust cloud – six minutes and 26 seconds after launch. The fire did not spread.
“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 company’s next prototype rocket, SN10, stood nearby at the launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.
Insprucker put a positive spin on the crash. “We demonstrated the ability to transition the engines to the landing propellant tanks,” he said. “The subsonic reentry looked very good and stable like we saw last December, so we’ve got a lot of good data on flap control.”
The company intends to proceed with its next launch “in the near future,” he added. Billionaire Elon Musk’s space company 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.
A first orbital Starship flight is planned for year’s end. Musk has said he intends to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with the Starship in 2023. There was no immediate comment from Musk on Tuesday’s accident. Hours earlier, Musk said on Twitter he planned to stay off the social media platform “for a while”.
SpaceX had tried to launch Starship last week but failed to get the necessary approval from the Federal Aviation Administration. SpaceX did not comply with safety regulations for the December 9 flight, an FAA spokesperson said on Tuesday, and needed to take corrective action before proceeding with launch operations. Tuesday’s flight met all safety criteria, according to the FAA.