SpaceX’s ambitious uncrewed spacecraft, Starship, developed for lunar and interstellar missions, faced a presumed failure minutes after its Saturday launch during its second test. This followed an earlier attempt that ended in an explosion.
The launch from the company’s Starbase site near Boca Chica, Texas, saw the two-stage rocketship propel the Starship approximately 55 miles (90 km) above ground. However, despite the successful launch and initial separation manoeuvre, the Super Heavy first stage booster exploded shortly after detaching from the core Starship stage, as shown on a SpaceX webcast.
Loss of Starship and Investigation by FAA
The core Starship stage continued its ascent but soon encountered issues. “We have lost the data from the second stage… we think we may have lost the second stage,” announced SpaceX’s livestream host, John Insprucker. About eight minutes into the mission, footage suggested an explosion at an altitude of 91 miles (148 km), indicating a probable failure of the vehicle.
Following an April failure, this second attempt to fly Starship atop the Super Heavy booster was under scrutiny by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA confirmed the mishap and oversaw a SpaceX-led investigation into the failure, requiring SpaceX to develop a plan to prevent future incidents.
The mission aimed to launch Starship from Texas into space, just short of orbit, and then return it through Earth’s atmosphere for a splashdown near Hawaii. The launch experienced a day’s delay for a hardware swap. The ignition of Starship’s 33 Raptor engines marked a dramatic start, with the spacecraft attempting to separate the two stages at around 43 miles (70 km) in altitude. However, following the explosion of the Super Heavy booster, the fate of the core stage remains unconfirmed by SpaceX. Despite the setback, SpaceX remains optimistic, stating on social media that the test improves Starship’s reliability.
A successful test would have been a significant step towards SpaceX’s goal of creating a versatile spacecraft for lunar missions and eventual Mars exploration. NASA, a key SpaceX customer, has a vested interest in Starship’s success for its Artemis human spaceflight program, aiming to build on the legacy of the Apollo moon missions.