SpaceX, Elon Musk’s spaceflight company, launched its Starship rocket from the south Texas coast on Saturday, a giant vehicle that could change the future of space transportation and help NASA return astronauts to the moon.
The flight of the Starship spacecraft, a powerful vehicle designed to transport NASA astronauts to the moon, was not entirely successful on Saturday. SpaceX did not achieve the ultimate goal of the test launch, a partial flight around the world ending with a landing in the Pacific Ocean.
But the test flight, the vehicle’s second, showed that the company had fixed major problems that arose during the previous test run in April. All 33 engines in the vehicle’s lower booster stage fired, and the rocket was able to pass the separation stage — when the booster fell away and the six engines in the upper stage lit up to carry the vehicle into space.
“Very nice,” John Innsbrucker, a SpaceX engineer and live launch commentator, said on a SpaceX webcast.
By contrast, the first spacecraft launch severely damaged the launch site; Several engines in the booster failed, the fire disabled the missile’s guidance and the flight termination system took a long time to explode.
Under SpaceX’s “fail fast, learn faster” approach to rocket design, successfully avoiding a repeat of past failures is a major advance.
However, the second flight revealed new challenges that Mr Musk’s engineers must overcome.
Shortly after the separation phase, the booster exploded, representing “rapid unscheduled disassembly” in the parlance of rocket engineers. The spacecraft in the Starship upper stage continued heading toward orbit for several more minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 90 miles, but then SpaceX lost contact with it after the flight termination system exploded.
No injuries or property damage were reported, the Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement. It will conduct a mishap investigation, which is standard any time something goes wrong with a commercial rocket.
Engineers will now have to decipher what went wrong with both the booster spacecraft and the upper stage spacecraft, make repairs and then try again.
Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever launched. SpaceX aims to make both parts of the vehicle fully and quickly reusable. This gives them the ability to launch larger and heavier payloads into space and dramatically reduce the cost of satellites, space telescopes, and the people and things they need to live in space.
The result of the test flight was the latest moment in the career of Mr. Musk, a serial entrepreneur who previously made electronic payments with PayPal and electric cars with Tesla. As SpaceX prepared for the flight on Friday, Disney and Apple paused their advertising spending with one of his other companies, the social network X, formerly known as Twitter, after Mr. Musk endorsed an anti-Semitic post on Wednesday.
Many outside observers are optimistic that SpaceX will make the spacecraft fully operational.
“They fixed the problems identified on their first flight and got further than ever before 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 SpaceX’s communications efforts. “The magic of engineering is that it is about learning, iterating the design, and soon flying again.”
Daniel L. agrees with this opinion. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “This is a big 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 operate the launch vehicle.
Two hours before sunrise on Saturday, liquid oxygen and liquid methane began flowing into the spacecraft. There was some fog near the ground but the sky above was clear, except for a few wisps of thin clouds.
The countdown continued smoothly, stopping at the planned wait with 40 seconds remaining on the countdown clock. Then the embargo was lifted, the final seconds ticked by, and shortly after 7 a.m. Central time, the 400-foot rocket slowly rose into the sky. A new deluge system appears to have protected the launch pad, avoiding the cloud of dust and debris that rose in April.
A few seconds later, a rhythmic roar struck onlookers watching on South Padre Island, about five miles north of the launch site.
Two minutes and 48 seconds after liftoff, there was a flash as the spacecraft successfully executed what was expected to be the most difficult part of the flight — the “hot staging,” when the six engines in the upper stage ignited before the booster fell away. Loud cheers echoed from SpaceX’s webcast, streaming from the company’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California.
Half a minute later, there was an even bigger flash as the booster — which was scheduled to splash into the Gulf of Mexico and sink — exploded. The upper stage continued to advance unscathed. But after a few minutes, an uncomfortable silence fell over the Internet broadcast when communication with the Starship 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. By 4:30 a.m., there was a long line of cars waiting in the dark to enter Isla Blanca Park at the south end of South Padre. Others walked from their hotels to avoid traffic. Boats packed with observers were floating just to the south, just outside the exclusion zone to the east.
The launch was experienced not only by those watching along the coast, but also by those further afield.
Emma Guevara, a resident of Brownsville, the city in South Texas west of the SpaceX launch site, said the event shook her house.
“It was much earlier than we all expected, so it woke everyone up,” said Ms. Guevara, a Sierra Club organizer who protested operations at the company’s base.
Top NASA officials offered congratulations to SpaceX.
“Each test represents a step closer to putting the first woman on the moon using the #Artemis III Starship human landing system.” Jim Frey, NASA’s associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development, said: Written on X. “I look forward to seeing what we can learn from this test that brings us closer to the next milestone.”
How quickly SpaceX resolves spacecraft problems could determine how quickly NASA astronauts return to the moon.
The space agency has hired SpaceX to adapt the Starship vehicle as a lunar lander to transport two astronauts to the moon’s south polar regions. Even before Starship’s last test flight, the first landing, currently scheduled for late 2025, had already been pushed back to 2026. SpaceX is also under contract to provide a Starship lander for the second crew landing, scheduled for 2028.
In order to land on the Moon, SpaceX would need not just one spacecraft, but nearly 20 spacecraft launches, because spacecraft headed to the Moon would have to refill their tanks with fuel before leaving Earth orbit.
For this reason, SpaceX is planning two more different versions of Starship.
One will essentially be an orbital fuel 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 fuel station. A series of tanker trips will be required to fill the gas station. A spacecraft bound for the Moon or Mars will launch, dock at a fuel depot and refill its tanks. But no one has yet tried to pump tons of propellant into a zero-gravity environment.
As the warehouse rotates around the Earth, sunlight passes in and out, and the outside of the warehouse will repeatedly become warm and cold. Maintaining propellant at constant, ultra-cold temperatures inside the depot will be a challenge.
At a NASA Advisory Board committee meeting on Friday, Lakeisha Hawkins, NASA’s deputy associate administrator, said the number of spacecraft launches would be in the “teens.”
Ms. Hawkins said the spacecraft will launch “on a six-day cycle” from both Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the spacecraft’s current launch site in Texas.
NASA has a backup. This year, it chose a second lunar lander design from Blue Origin — the Kent, Washington-based rocket company started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. This design is smaller and is scheduled to be used for the third lunar landing, which will not happen before 2029.
Ryan Mac And Katrina Miller Contributed to reports.
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