SpaceX’s latest attempt at launching its Starship on a near-orbital journey ended abruptly this morning, as the spacecraft’s automated flight termination system was triggered about 10 minutes into the flight. This marks the company’s second test flight failure, following an explosion in April just minutes after liftoff.
The launch, which took place at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in Boca Chica, Texas, showed significant improvements from the previous attempt. The vehicle, fueled with about 10 million pounds of propellant, had all 33 Raptor engines ignite successfully, and the stage separation from the Super Heavy booster was executed as planned. However, problems arose shortly after, leading to the loss of the booster and the upper stage.
During the flight, the Starship successfully managed the max q phase, where it faced peak atmospheric pressure. After this, the vehicle separated from the Super Heavy booster, which then exploded in what SpaceX refers to as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” The upper stage continued its ascent but encountered issues leading to the activation of the flight termination system, signaling the end of the test flight.
Despite the failure, the second test flight marked a substantial improvement over the first. The launch vehicle showcased a new hot-stage separation system and an upgraded electronic thrust vector control system for the Super Heavy’s engines. Additionally, reinforcements to the pad foundation and a new water-cooled steel flame deflector were tested.
Environmental considerations were also a part of the preparations, with the US Fish and Wildlife Service assessing the impact of the upgraded launch site on the local wildlife, including several endangered species.
SpaceX’s approach to iterative development was evident in this test flight. Each prototype incorporates lessons learned from previous flights, enhancing the vehicle’s design and functionality. The next Starship prototype, already in a more advanced stage, will incorporate these improvements and undergo further testing.
SpaceX’s ambitions with the Starship are high, as the company aims to use it for moon landing contracts for NASA’s Artemis missions and for crewed spaceflights with private passengers in the coming years. The successful completion of stage separation, the primary goal of this mission, along with the advancements in vehicle design and launch infrastructure, underscores SpaceX’s commitment to overcoming the challenges of space exploration.
The space industry awaits further updates from SpaceX as they analyze the data from this flight and prepare for future missions. The progress made, despite the abrupt end to the flight, represents a significant step forward in the journey to make space travel more accessible and frequent.