SpaceX’s test of their new Starship was very close to a success until the very end, when what looks like a premature shutdown of one of the three Raptor engines on landing caused the massive, silo-like rocket to crash in a massive fireball.
(Note: I’m looking through comments, and there’s people who feel I’m being too scornful about this test? Let me clarify from the start, then: despite the crash, this is still a remarkable achievement, and SpaceX undoubtedly learned a lot here. I thought that was clear, but here, I’m saying it again.)
The un-crewed test was to send the prototype silo-looking rocket up about 12.5 kilometers, where it would roll into a “belly flop” orientation, and then land vertically on its landing legs.
Here’s a live feed of the test, via the Everyday Astronaut, who seems delighted:
The reason for the delight is more than just the visceral excitement of seeing a massive fireball; a lot went right in the test, before it very much didn’t. It launched, it made the complicated belly-flop maneuver, and it re-ignited its engines to attempt a vertical landing, but that part didn’t quite work.
Here’s what that belly-flop maneuver looked like, and here’s what that crash looked like:
On twitter, the SpaceX fans and probable Elon-stans are remarkably upbeat considering the whole damn thing exploded, calling it a “huge win”:
Still, I get it. Spaceflight isn’t easy, and a lot did go right here, and what went wrong will provide a lot of important information.
In the video, it appears that upon landing one of the three Raptor engines wasn’t firing, and one was expelling a lot of green exhaust, which suggests it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to, either, and the landing legs didn’t seem to deploy.
The good news is that it did crash in the right place, as in right on the landing pad, which led to grimly hilarious images like this:
Elon Musk was upbeat about the loss of his test rocket, tweeting:
And he’s right: that was a very precise massive crash.
Starship is SpaceX’ plan for a havy-lift rocket and spacecraft system, a 160 feet tall, 30 feet in diameter, machine capable of hauling over 100 tons into orbit. That makes it the biggest rocket since the mighty Saturn V moon rocket, and the largest, most powerful rocket currently in development.
The Starship spacecraft itself will be the largest fully reusable spacecraft system ever, and, in plan at least, should prove to be a far more flexible system than the Space Shuttle, humanity’s only other reusable crewed spacecraft to date.
Though it seems first they have some work to do.
We’ll keep adding to the story as it develops.