SpaceX Starship rocket exploded the moment it hit the ground following its first high-altitude flight – leaving nothing behind but debris and cloud of smoke.
CEO Elon Musk had said it was unlikely that Starship serial number 8 (SN8) would land safely – and the billionaire was right.
The massive rocket took off from the firm’s Boca Chica testing facility at 5:45pm ET, igniting its powerful Raptor engines and soaring into the sky to hit its 41,000 feet goal.
The flight lasted for about six minutes before the engines shutdown and SN8 began its journey back to the launch pad.
The world sat on the edge of their seats as the rocket neared the ground wondering Musk’s prediction was correct.
When Starship finally touched down, it ignited in flames and a damage piece of the nose cone laid among the wreckage when the thick cloud of smoke cleared.
Although Musk has not revealed the cost to build a single Starship, SpaceX lists its Falcon 9 rocket at $54 million and the Starship is said to cost ‘roughly four times as much to build – bringing the total cost and lost of the SN8 to $216 million.
The CEO deemed today’s launch a success because the prototype, even though it is destroyed, collected a trove of data that will bring SpaceX one step closer to sending humans to Mars aboard the rocket.
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SpaceX Starship rocket exploded the moment it hit the ground following its first high-altitude flight – leaving nothing behind but debris and cloud of smoke
Musk shared his excitement of the launch on Twitter, writing: ‘Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!’
‘Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!’
The CEO later thanked South Texas for their support in a separate tweet, followed by another one that says ‘Mars, here we come!!’
Amazon´s Jeff Bezos, who founded the Blue Origin rocket company, offered swift congratulations.
‘Anybody who knows how hard this stuff is is impressed by today´s Starship test.’
This latest prototype is the first one equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines.
It was shooting for an altitude of up to eight miles (12.5 kilometers), which is almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere.
The massive rocket took off from the firm’s Boca Chica testing facility at 5:45pm, igniting its powerful Raptor engines and soaring into the sky
Starship soared straight up into the air for its first high-altitude flight and over the Gulf of Mexico
The flight lasted for around six minutes before the engines shutdown and SN8 began its journey back to the launch pad
Green and yellow flames came spewing out from the Raptor engines, which engulfed the landing site
Starship seemed to hit the mark or at least come close, but there was no immediate word from SpaceX on how high it went before being destroyed.
The full-scale, stainless steel model stands 160 feet (50 meters) tall and is 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter.
It soared out over the Gulf of Mexico and after about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border.
Upon touching down, however, the craft became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering. The entire flight -lasted just over six minutes and 40 minutes
The only thing left of SN8 is some debris and the tip of its nose cone. The high-altitude flight was focused on testing a number of features of the giant spaceship, that could take the first passengers to Mars as early as 2026, according to Musk
The test flight was initially set for December 2, then pushed to December 4 and then to December 7 then it was scheduled again on Tuesday, which was scrubbed at the last minute.
This ‘hop’ is a historic event for SpaceX, as previous prototypes only hit 500 feet in the air.
But, it is also the most destructive.
Musk recently tweeted that a ‘lot of things need to go right’ for it to land back on solid ground after the suborbital flight, adding there is ‘probably 1/3 chance of completing all mission objectives.’
The Raptor engines reignited for braking, sending the rocket from on its side directly upright.
Upon touching down, however, the craft became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering.
The entire flight -lasted just over six minutes and 40 minutes.
The Starship two-stage-to-orbit heavy lift vehicle has been in development since 2012 and is designed to bring the cost of launch down by being more reusable.
The high-altitude flight was focused on testing a number of features of the giant spaceship, that could take the first passengers to Mars as early as 2026, according to Musk.
These tests include the vehicle’s three Raptor engines, the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities including body flaps, and a ‘landing flip maneuver’.
Going up just under eight miles is not enough to take it into space – but as all previous ‘hops’ have been measured in feet rather than miles – it is a significant step forward.
The edge of space is agreed by NASA and others to be 50 miles above sea level but to go into orbit you need to get to at least 100 miles above sea level.
The massive 160ft-tall rocket sat on the launch pad Tuesday and after the countdown clock hit ‘one’ the engines began to vent, but seconds later the ground crew said ‘Raptor abort’. However, it made the hop Wednesday, even though it did not make it out alive
Going up just under eight miles is not enough to take it into space – but as all previous ‘hops’ have been measured in feet rather than miles – it is a significant step forward
The test flight was initially set for December 2, then pushed to December 4 (pictured) and then to December 7 when it was again Tuesday, which was scrubbed at the last minute
The test flight will go up 7.8 miles then aim to land safely back at the testing facility in Texas
Last week Musk tweeted: ‘Good Starship SN8 static fire! Aiming for first 15km / ~50k ft altitude flight next week. Goals are to test 3 engine ascent, body flaps, transition from main to header tanks & landing flip.’
The overall height of test dropped from 9 miles (15km) to 7.8 miles (12.5km), but no reason was given for this change.
This suborbital flight was aimed at recovering data on how the vehicle’s three Raptor engines perform, the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities and how it manages propellant transition.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted a photo of the massive Starship SN8 prototype on the launch pad at the testing facility in Texas
‘With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn,’ SpaceX wrote in a statement.
Adding that this ‘will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances development of Starship.’
The development of Starship has been rapid, with new prototypes and next generation models developed concurrently to allow for quick changes.
In the past year alone SpaceX has completed two low-altitude flight tests with SN5 and SN6 and over 16,000 seconds of run time during ground engine starts.
The high-altitude test involves the three massive raptor engines to see how they manage in flight
The giant rocket will eventually take satellites into orbit as well as passengers and payload to the Moon and Mars over the coming decades
‘Additionally, with production accelerating and fidelity increasing, SpaceX has built 10 Starship prototypes. SN9 is almost ready to move to the pad, which now has two active stands for rapid development testing,’ the firm said.
The landing is one of the most important aspects – as it needs to be fully reusable to achieve the goals and price per flight set out by the SpaceX team.
There are a number of potential uses for Starship – including deploying hundreds of satellites into orbit at one time and landing astronauts on the Moon and Mars.
The SpaceX CEO previously said there was a ‘fighting chance’ the first Starship flight to Mars could happen as early as 2024 – the year NASA plans to send the first woman and next man back to the surface of the Moon.
If the high-altitude flight test – that will see the triple Raptor engine fire and lift the spaceship into the air – is successful, then further, higher tests will likely follow
Musk had suggested the high-altitude test flight could end in a crash – and he was right
There are also other prototypes of the Starship craft ready to be tested if this flight fails, according to reports.
SN8 was the first prototype to feature a nosecone and nose fins that help in the high-altitude tests. The previous ‘short hops’ were carried out using prototype SN6.
Musk says he has SN9 and SN10 ready to go as they were developed in parallel to SN8 and follow a theme of ‘building successive generations of prototypes’ rapidly so they y can test and iterate quickly.
‘SN8’s flight test is an exciting next step in the development of a fully reusable transportation system capable of carrying both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond,’ SpaceX wrote.
‘As we venture into new territory, we continue to appreciate all of the support and encouragement we have received.’
Although many may see SN8 as a failure, this is not the first prototype SpaceX has exploded for experimental purposes – or even by pure accident.
The firm has lost a total of four prototypes during its journey, and they have all gone up in flames at the Texas testing site.
WHAT IS ELON MUSK’S ‘BFR’?
The BFR (Big F***ing Rocket), now known as Starship, will complete all missions and is smaller than the ones Musk announced in 2016.
The SpaceX CEO said the rocket would take its first trip to the red planet in 2022, carrying only cargo, followed by a manned mission in 2024 and claimed other SpaceX’s products would be ‘cannibalised’ to pay for it.
The rocket would be partially reusable and capable of flight directly from Earth to Mars.
Once built, Musk believes the rocket could be used for travel on Earth – saying that passengers would be able to get anywhere in under an hour.