SpaceX has been on a tear recently. Its partnership with NASA is blossoming and its private endeavors, like Starlink, are also going smoothly. As such, the spaceflight company was due for some sort of setback.
On Wednesday, that finally came. SpaceX launched its massive Starship rocket on a high-altitude vertical test flight. At the end of the test, the vehicle came plummeting back to Earth and was unable to slow itself down. The result was a dramatic and fiery crash near the launchpad.
Even so, SpaceX achieved its main objectives for the test—meaning it wasn’t a failure despite the crash landing. CEO Elon Musk said that his company collected all the data it intended to during the test mission.
The Bigger They Are, the Harder They Fall
Starship looks a lot like a silver grain silo with fins. The massive craft is equipped with multiple engines to propel it off the ground that also give it a huge launch capacity. However, Starship is by no means an agile vehicle.
That was evident in the closing seconds of its test flight on Wednesday. SN8 (the eighth version of Starship) launched from SpaceX’s facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, and then flew upward for about five minutes. It reached an altitude of roughly eight miles—higher than almost all commercial airline flights.
When Starship cut its engines, the fun began. The massive vehicle executed a landing maneuver called the “belly flop” that looks utterly bizarre. SN8 tipped onto its side, freefalling like a skydiver with its body parallel to the ground. This approach is designed to increase the craft’s air resistance to slow down its descent.
Over a minute later, the engines came back online to bring the rocket back into a vertical position and aim it at the launchpad. Unfortunately, the landing portion of the test didn’t go as planned.
A burst of green flame shot out from Starship’s engines just before it crashed into the landing pad. It proceeded to explode into a massive fireball.
Musk attributed the SN8’s “rapid unscheduled disassembly” to low fuel tank pressure. He said on Twitter, “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!!”
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!!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) December 9, 2020
Up Next: Mars
Despite the fireball landing, Starship’s recent test has made many people hopeful about the future of spaceflight. The massive rocket has the potential to once again revolutionize the industry.
Its launch capacity nearly doubles that of the Falcon Heavy, SpaceX’s current world-record-holder. Starship can reportedly launch 220,000 pounds of cargo into low-Earth orbit. It is also designed to travel to far-away destinations like the moon and Mars.
The company’s engineers will be able to perform another test launch fairly soon since the SN9 iteration of the vehicle is almost complete.
While SpaceX’s biggest rocket yet still has a lot to prove, Starship appears to be well on its way to shaking up the spaceflight world. Moving forward, the company will work on assembling the Super Heavy, a huge first-stage booster that will give Starship enough power to reach orbit.