SpaceX, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company, launched its Starship rocket from the coast of South Texas on Saturday, a massive vehicle that could alter the future of space transportation and help NASA return astronauts to the moon.
Saturday’s flight of Starship, a powerful vehicle designed to take NASA astronauts to the moon, was not a complete success. SpaceX did not achieve the ultimate goal of the test launch: a partial trip around the world that ended with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
But the test flight, the vehicle’s second, showed that the company had fixed key problems that arose during the previous test operation in April. The 33 engines of the vehicle’s lower booster stage ignited and the rocket managed to overcome stage separation, when the booster drops and the six engines of the upper stage ignite to carry the vehicle into space.
“Just beautiful,” John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer and live launch commentator, said on the SpaceX webcast.
In contrast, the first Starship launch severely damaged the launch site; several booster engines failed, fires destroyed the rocket’s steering, and the flight termination system took too long to explode.
Under SpaceX’s “fail fast, learn faster” approach to rocket design, successfully avoiding a repeat of past failures is considered a major advancement.
However, the second flight revealed new challenges that Musk’s engineers must overcome.
Shortly after stage separation, the booster exploded—an “unscheduled rapid teardown,” in rocket engineers’ jargon. The upper stage Starship spacecraft continued heading toward orbit for several more minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 90 miles, but then SpaceX lost contact with it after it detonated the flight termination system.
In a statement, the Federal Aviation Administration said no injuries or property damage had been reported. It will conduct a mishap investigation, which is standard any time something goes wrong with a commercial rocket.
Engineers will now have to figure out what went wrong with both the booster and the upper stage spacecraft, correct it, and try again.
Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket to ever fly. SpaceX aims to make both parts of the vehicle fully and quickly reusable. That gives it the potential to launch larger, heavier payloads into space and significantly reduce the cost of launching satellites, space telescopes, people and the things they need to live in space.
The result of the test ride was the latest split-screen moment in the career of Musk, a serial entrepreneur who previously transformed electronic payments with PayPal and electric cars with Tesla. As SpaceX prepared for Friday’s flight, Disney and Apple suspended their advertising spending on another of their companies, the social network X, formerly known as Twitter, after Musk endorsed an anti-Semitic post on Wednesday.
Many outside observers are optimistic that SpaceX will get Starship fully operational.
“They’ve fixed problems identified on their first flight and gone further than ever with this type of vehicle,” said Phil Larson, who served as a White House space adviser during President Barack Obama’s administration and later worked on communications efforts. at SpaceX. “The magic of engineering is that it’s about learning, iterating the design and flying again soon.”
Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, agreed. “This is a great launch system,” he said. “It will take some work to get where it needs to go. “I have no doubt that the SpaceX team will be able to figure out how to make the launch vehicle work.”
A couple of hours before dawn on Saturday, liquid oxygen and liquid methane began flowing toward the Starship. There was some fog near the ground, but the sky was clear except for a few wisps of cirrus clouds.
The countdown went smoothly, stopping at a planned pause with 40 seconds left on the countdown clock. Then the control was lifted, the final seconds ticked away, and shortly after 7 a.m. Central Time, the 400-foot-tall rocket slowly rose into the sky. A new water deluge system appears to have protected the launch pad, preventing the cloud of dust and debris that rose in April.
A few seconds later, the percussive roar hit spectators watching on South Padre Island, about five miles north of the launch site.
At 2 minutes and 48 seconds after liftoff, there was a flash as Starship successfully performed what was expected to be the most complicated part of the flight: “hot staging,” when the upper stage’s six engines were fired. They ignited before the propellant fell. Loud cheers echoed on SpaceX’s webcast, which was broadcast from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Half a minute later, there was a larger flash as the booster exploded, falling into the Gulf of Mexico and sinking. The upper stage continued unscathed. But a few minutes later, the webcast fell into an awkward silence when contact with the Starship vehicle was lost.
Many of the thousands of people who woke up early to watch the launch on South Padre Island said they enjoyed the spectacle. At 4:30 a.m., a long line of cars waited in the dark to enter Isla Blanca Park at the southern end of South Padre. Others walked from their hotels to avoid traffic. Boats packed with observers floated just to the south, outside the exclusion zone to the east.
The launch was experienced not only by those watching along the coast, but also by those further away.
Emma Guevara, a resident of Brownsville, the south Texas city that is west of the SpaceX launch site, said the event shook her house.
“It was a lot sooner than we all expected, so it woke everyone up,” said Guevara, who is an organizer with the Sierra Club and has protested operations at the company’s base.
Senior NASA officials congratulated SpaceX.
“Each test represents one step closer to landing the first woman on the Moon with the #Artemis III Starship human landing system,” said Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development. wrote in X. “We look forward to seeing what can be learned from this trial that brings us closer to the next milestone.”
How quickly SpaceX resolves Starship’s problems could determine how soon NASA astronauts return to the moon.
The space agency has contracted SpaceX to adapt Starship as a lunar lander to carry two astronauts to the south polar regions of the moon. Even before Starship’s latest test flight, it had already been considered that the first landing, currently scheduled for late 2025, would be delayed until 2026. SpaceX also has a contract to provide a Starship lander for the second crewed landing, scheduled for 2028.
For the moon landing, SpaceX would need not just one Starship but nearly 20 spacecraft launches, because a Starship heading to the Moon would have to refill its propellant tanks before leaving Earth’s orbit.
To this end, SpaceX is planning two other Starship variants.
One will essentially be an orbital gas station in space: a propellant depot in space business parlance. The other will be a tanker version to transport methane and liquid oxygen to the gas station. A series of tanker flights will be needed to fill the gas station. A starship headed for the Moon or Mars will launch and dock at the propellant depot and refuel its tanks. But no one has yet attempted to pump tons of propellants in a zero-gravity environment.
As a tank orbits the Earth, it enters and leaves sunlight, and the outside of the tank will repeatedly heat and cool. Keeping the propellants at constant, ultra-cold temperatures inside the tank will be a challenge.
At a NASA Advisory Council committee meeting on Friday, Lakiesha Hawkins, NASA’s deputy assistant administrator, said the number of Starship launches would be in the “high teens.”
The Starships would launch “on a six-day rotation” from both the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the current Starship launch site in Texas, Hawkins said.
NASA has backup. This year, it selected a second lunar lander design from Blue Origin, the Kent, Washington-based rocket company founded by Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. This design is smaller and is planned for use in the third moon landing, which will occur no earlier than 2029.
ryan mac and Katrina Miller contributed reports.