On Wednesday, a giant experimental rocket designed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully soared eight miles above the company’s South Texas testing facilities and came back down as expected, before crashing into the ground in a massive plume of flames and smoke.
The hulking rocket had none on board. Starship, a 160-foot-tall spacecraft proposed by Musk, was an early concept model that he hopes would be used to transport huge satellites into Earth’s orbit, shuttle people between cities at breakneck speeds and, finally create a human settlement on Mars.
Musk hopes to one day ferry the first humans to go to Mars, and a fiery ending was not entirely unexpected. The test flight marked the highest test flight yet of the technology. Before the flight, Musk tried to dampen expectations, saying in one tweet that he predicted the “SN8” spacecraft, the name for the prototype Starship used on Wednesday, had a one-in-three chance of safely landing back on Earth.
The SN8 managed to navigate back to its landing target, but Musk said via Twitter that a problem with the fuel system of the rocket caused it to land in a crash. The landing site, which is just outside the small coastal town of Boca Chica, Texas, was engulfed by green and yellow fire.
Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point! https://t.co/IIraiESg5M— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 9, 2020
In the early stages of new spacefaring technology growth, SpaceX and Musk are known to embrace mishaps. Instead of following the more NASA-esque method of cautiously performing comprehensive testing and ground tests before placing a rocket on a launch pad, the company’s ethos is to move fast and learn from mistakes.
During pressure tests, several previous Starship designs were destroyed, which are designed to verify whether a spacecraft can withstand the tremendous pressure it encounters during fueling and in flight.
Before the launch, SpaceX did not announce precisely what the test was intended to look like but shortly after liftoff, one of the three engines of the Starship SN8 turned off. That did not seem to have a dramatic impact on the maneuvering of the spacecraft while in the air. When all three engines were shut down, during a decent move that Musk foresaw during a September 2019 presentation, the vehicle was able to orient itself at an angle, billing it as a spacecraft landing technique that mimics a skydiver dropping through the air. Musk said he hopes that a fully functioning Starship will tip about 60 degrees, putting its belly down towards the Planet, as it plummeted down into the atmosphere to make it less aerodynamic and slow down. The vehicle will then swing back into its upright position just before landing, and land softly on a ground pad.
SpaceX had previously attempted to launch a test flight twice this week, but both of the first attempts were stopped with just a few moments left on the countdown clock.
It was not clear why SpaceX halted the launches, but even during routine rocket launches, last-minute scrubs are not unusual. Computers or flight controllers may have caught an odd reading about the health of the rocket and avoided igniting the engines.
The organization is quite a long way from creating an operating Starship spacecraft. So far, numerous prototypes have been developed that have been used to test how well their steel frames perform under pressure and to conduct suborbital “hop tests,” which have tested how the gigantic engines of the rocket can steer the spacecraft after flight to soft, pinpoint landings. Musk said the technique is necessary for the vehicles to be retrieved and reused, as well as to perform a controlled landing on the Moon or Mars one day.
Previous test flights of Starship designs flew less than approximately 500 feet in the air, using only one engine. The first to have three engines mounted would be the spacecraft that will be used on SpaceX’s next Starship test flight, named SN8. And it will be the tallest and most dangerous Starship test flight yet, by far.
Musk had initially said via Twitter that SpaceX would launch the SN8 prototype to 60,000 feet or higher, about 11 miles. That would have brought the vehicle into the stratosphere, the second layer of the atmosphere of the Earth, where weather balloons are flown and flights are performed by supersonic aircraft. But according to Reuters, the company later agreed to target 40,000 feet. It’s not yet clear how far on Wednesday the Starship SN8 actually flew.
Although 40,000 and 60,000 feet are still far below the 62-mile line, which is generally considered to mark the edge of outer space, it is not clear why the company chose to lower its target altitude for this test flight.
Anyway the SN8 rocket will not be able to enter Earth’s orbit alone. Six rocket engines will be needed for the final Starship design, and even then the vehicle will need a separate, hulking rocket booster, called the Super Heavy, to blast the spacecraft into orbit as the journey will require it to fly at speeds of up to 17,000 miles per hour. Whether the company has begun production or testing of the Super Heavy booster is not yet clear.
Starship would also ultimately have to attain “escape velocity” for a trip to Mars, around 25,000 miles per hour, which is the speed needed to tear a spacecraft away from the gravitational force of Earth, allowing it to travel to our solar system’s more distant regions.
Around his interplanetary travel aspirations, Musk created SpaceX, claiming he wanted to develop the technology to allow humans to settle the Red Planet.
The proposals for a Mars settlement by SpaceX pose various technical, political and ethical concerns. For example, it is not clear whether Musk intends to collaborate with Earth governments to develop a space colony, or whether Musk intends to create a sovereign nation that could breach established international treaties regulating human outer space actions. One of the most daunting challenges can also be financial: Musk has not even ventured to guess an all-in cost estimate.
But the Starship should be closer to home for many other practical purposes. The spacecraft may be capable of carrying large satellites or scientific telescopes into Earth’s orbit, replenishing the International Space Station or even at incredible speeds, shuttling people between towns. SpaceX said in a September 2017 presentation that Starship could “capable of taking people from any city to any other city on Earth in under one hour.”