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SpaceX Starship explodes minutes into first test flight

by Compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports | April 21, 2023 at 4:56 a.m.
SpaceX’s Starship launches from Starbase Thursday in Boca Chica, Texas. More photos at (AP/Eric Gay)

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas -- SpaceX's giant new rocket exploded minutes after blasting off on its first test flight Thursday and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico.

Elon Musk's company was aiming to send the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built on a round-the-world trip from the southern tip of Texas, near the Mexican border. The nearly 400-foot Starship carried no people or satellites.

SpaceX later said multiple engines on the 33-engine booster were not firing as the rocket ascended, causing it to lose altitude and begin to tumble. The rocket was intentionally destroyed by its self-destruct system, exploding and plummeting into the water.

Instead of a best-case-scenario 1½-hour flight with the spacecraft on top peeling away and taking a lap around the world, the whole thing lasted four minutes. The rocket reached a maximum speed of about 1,300 mph and altitude of 24 miles before going sideways and dropping.

Throngs of spectators watched from South Padre Island, several miles away from the Boca Chica Beach launch site, which was off-limits. As Starship lifted off with a thunderous roar, the crowd screamed: "Go, baby, go!"

Musk, in a tweet, called it "an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months." SpaceX termed it a "rapid unscheduled disassembly."

In the weeks leading up to the flight, Musk gave 50-50 odds that the spacecraft would reach orbit. He stressed that clearing the launch tower and not blowing up the pad would be a win.

"You never know exactly what's going to happen," said SpaceX livestream commentator and engineer John Insprucker. "But as we promised, excitement is guaranteed and Starship gave us a rather spectacular end."

Before the unmanned launch, intended to validate whether the design of the rocket system is sound, Musk had tamped down expectations. He said it might take several tries before Starship succeeds at this test flight.

But the launch achieved a number of important milestones, with the rocket flying for four minutes and getting well clear of the launchpad. The brief flight produced reams of data for engineers to understand how the vehicle performed.

"It may look that way to some people, but it's not a failure," said Daniel Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a former high-level NASA official. "It's a learning experience."

Still, the flight fell short of complete success. The flight plan called for the Starship spacecraft to reach a higher altitude of about 150 miles before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii about 90 minutes later. And it remains to be seen how Thursday's flight outcome might affect NASA's schedule, which calls for the first moon landing by astronauts aboard Starship to occur in late 2025.

When SpaceX began building Starship, it was motivated by Musk's dream of sending people to live on Mars someday, an endeavor that would require the transport of enormous amounts of supplies to succeed.

At liftoff, the rocket kicked up huge plumes of sand and dust around the pad. In Port Isabel, about 10 miles away, particles covered cars and other surfaces. The only other report, said John Sandoval, assistant to the city manager, was a shattered window at a local business. "Yes, it shook, rattled and rolled," he said of the rocket.

The Federal Aviation Administration said it would oversee the accident investigation, noting that no injuries or public property damage were reported. The agency also said that until it determines that there is no threat to public safety, Starships are grounded.

SpaceX intends to use Starship to send people and cargo to the moon and, eventually, Mars. NASA has reserved a Starship for its next moonwalking team, and rich tourists are already booking lunar flybys.

A gargantuan, fully reusable vehicle would slash the cost of sending cargo into space, leading some to imagine how Starship could carry mammoth space telescopes to peer at the cosmos, or squadrons of robots to explore other worlds. Others are designing larger satellites that will be cheaper because they will not have to use expensive components currently needed to fit into the size and weight constraints imposed by present-day rockets.

"Flying rockets and reusing them has massive potential to change the game and transportation to orbit," said Phil Larson, who served as a White House space adviser during the Obama administration and later worked on communication efforts at SpaceX. "And it could enable whole new classes of missions."

Despite the setback, SpaceX remains the dominant company in global spaceflight. Its rockets have already traveled to space 25 times in 2023, with the most recent launch concluding successfully on Wednesday.

The countdown Thursday at the launch site near Brownsville proceeded smoothly through the morning until the last half a minute, when it was paused for a few minutes while SpaceX engineers resolved technical issues. Employees at SpaceX headquarters in California started cheering loudly when the countdown resumed.

Then as a cloud of exhaust rose around the rocket, it took flight.

"It looked really good coming off the pad and it looked really good for a while," Dumbacher said.

Video of the rocket captured flashes as several of the 33 engines failed on the lower portion of the spacecraft, the Super Heavy booster. That turned out to be too much for the guidance system to compensate, and the vehicle started tumbling in a corkscrew path.

The upper-stage Starship vehicle apparently did not separate from the booster, and four minutes after liftoff, the automated flight termination system destroyed the rocket, ending the flight in a fireball.


Despite the abbreviated flight, congratulations poured in from NASA chief Bill Nelson and others in the space industry. Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted, "Huge accomplishment, huge lessons, onwards to the next attempt."

"It fell somewhere between a small step and their hoped-for giant leap, but it still represents significant progress toward a reusable super-heavy lift rocket," University of Chicago's Jordan Bimm, a space historian, said in an email.

At 394 feet and nearly 17 million pounds of thrust, Starship easily surpasses NASA's moon rockets -- past, present and future. NASA successfully launched its new 322-foot moon rocket last November on a test flight, sending the empty Orion capsule around the moon.

The stainless steel Starship rocket is designed to be fully reusable with fast turnaround, dramatically lowering costs, similar to what SpaceX's smaller Falcon rockets have done soaring from Cape Canaveral, Fla. Nothing was to be saved from this test flight, with the spacecraft -- if all had gone well -- aiming for a watery grave in the Pacific near Hawaii.

The futuristic spacecraft flew several miles into the air during testing a few years ago, landing successfully only once. But this was the inaugural launch of the first-stage booster with 33 methane-fueled engines.

SpaceX has more boosters and spacecraft lined up for more test flight; the next set is almost ready to go. Musk wants to fire them off in quick succession, so he can start using Starships to launch satellites into low-Earth orbit and then put people on board.

It was the second launch attempt. Monday's try was scrapped by a frozen booster valve.

Jason and Lisa Flores drove down from Corpus Christi to watch the launch with their daughter, and noticed something was amiss.

Lisa Flores cried seeing the liftoff and then realized, "It's not working out the way it was supposed to."

Elizabeth Trujillo, 13, wearing a "Star Wars" shirt and carrying toy binoculars, skipped school to see the launch from the beach with her mother and other relatives. The crowd cheered when Starship cleared the tower.

Despite the failed attempt, "it was worth it," said Jessica Trujillo, Elizabeth's mother. "Just hearing and seeing the view, the excitement of the crowd, it was priceless."

"Practice makes perfect. They just got to practice some more," she added.

SpaceX has a history of learning from mistakes. The company's mantra is essentially, "Fail fast, but learn faster."

Traditional aerospace companies have tried to anticipate and prevent as many failures as possible ahead of time. But that approach takes money and time and can lead to vehicles that are overdesigned. SpaceX instead is more like a Silicon Valley software company -- starting with an imperfect product that can be improved quickly.

Information for this article was contributed by Marcia Dunn and Valerie Gonzalez of The Associated Press and by Kenneth Chang of The New York Times.

  photo  This undated photo provided by SpaceX shows the company's Starship rocket at the launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. (SpaceX via AP)

  photo  SpaceX’s Starship breaks up after its launch Thursday from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. (AP/Eric Gay)

 Gallery: SpaceX rocket launches, self-destructs

Print Headline: SpaceX Starship explodes minutes into first test flight


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