SpaceX Starship is preparing for a repeat test flight, seven months after its last explosion
Written by Joe Skipper, Joey Rowlett and Steve Gorman
BOCA CHICA, Texas (Reuters) – SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft, developed to take astronauts to the moon and beyond, is scheduled to lift off on Saturday in a repeat launch test from south Texas, seven months after its attempt ended. The first to reach space. With an explosion.
The unmanned launch was scheduled to take place during a 20-minute window starting at 7 a.m. CST (1300 GMT) at SpaceX’s Starbase site on the Gulf of Mexico near Boca Chica. The spacecraft was mounted atop a very heavy rocket booster in what will be the second attempt to fly the two vehicles together.
The mission’s goal is to get the spacecraft off the ground in Texas and into space before it reaches orbit, then dive into Earth’s atmosphere to land off the coast of Hawaii. The launch was scheduled to take place on Friday but was postponed by a day for a last-minute exchange of flight controls.
A successful test flight will represent a major step toward realizing SpaceX’s ambition to produce a large, multi-purpose spacecraft capable of sending people and cargo to the Moon later this decade for NASA, and eventually to Mars.
Elon Musk — founder, CEO and chief engineer of SpaceX — sees Starship eventually replacing the company’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket as the cornerstone of the launch business that already launches most of the world’s satellites and other commercial payloads into space.
NASA, SpaceX’s primary customer, has a major stake in the success of Starship, which the US space agency is counting on to play a central role in its human spaceflight program, Artemis, the successor to the Apollo missions more than half a century ago that put astronauts on the moon’s surface for the first time.
Starship’s towering first-stage booster, propelled by 33 Raptor engines, puts the full height of the rocket system at about 400 feet (122 meters) and produces twice as much thrust as the Saturn V rocket that sent the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
SpaceX aims to at least surpass the performance of Starship-Super Heavy during its April 20 test flight, when the two-stage spacecraft blew itself to bits in less than four minutes in a planned 90-minute flight.
That journey went awry from the beginning. SpaceX acknowledged that some of the Raptor’s 33 Super Heavy engines failed on ascent, and that the lower-stage booster failed to separate as designed from the spacecraft’s upper stage before terminating the flight.
The company’s engineering culture, which is more risk-tolerant than many of the aerospace industry’s more established companies, is built on a flight-testing strategy that drives a spacecraft to the point of failure, then fine-tunes improvements through frequent iteration.
Failure at any stage of the test flight would be a major concern for NASA, which is relying on SpaceX’s rapid rocket development ethos to quickly get humans to the moon in America’s competition with China’s lunar ambitions.
Judging the success or failure of the outcome may be less clear, depending on how far the spacecraft travels this time. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who has made competition with China a fundamental need for speed, compared the Starship test campaign to the success of SpaceX’s previous rocket development efforts.
“How did they develop the Falcon 9 rocket? They went through many tests, and sometimes it exploded,” Nelson told Reuters on Tuesday. “They will figure out what went wrong, correct it and come back.”
The combined spacecraft in April reached a peak altitude of about 25 miles (40 km), about halfway into space at its target altitude of 90 miles (150 km), before it caught fire.
An internal fire during the spacecraft’s ascent damaged its engines and computers, causing it to veer off course, and an auto-destruct command was activated about 40 seconds after the rocket was supposed to detonate, Musk said.
The launch pad itself was destroyed by the force of the explosion, which also started a 3.5-acre (1.4 ha) fire. No one is hurt. SpaceX has since reinforced the launch pad with a massive water-cooled steel plate, one of dozens of corrective measures required by the US Federal Aviation Administration before granting launch authorization on Wednesday for the second test flight.
(Additional reporting by Joey Rowlett in New York, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, and Joe Skipper in Boca Chica, Texas; Editing by Will Dunham)