SpaceX launches Super Heavy-Starship rocket but test flight falls short

SpaceX's gargantuan Super Heavy-Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, blasted off on its second test flight Saturday, and while the initial stages of the mission went smoothly, the first stage broke apart moments after separation from the Starship upper stage. The Starship, in turn, blew itself up as it neared space.

Viewed as a successful learning experience by SpaceX, it was the second failure in a row to get the Starship upper stage into space, a frustrating disappointment for Elon Musk's rocket company and a potentially major setback for NASA, which is counting on the Starship to carry Artemis astronauts to the surface of the moon in the next few years.

People watch as SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket lifts off from the company's Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, as seen from South Padre Island, Texas, Nov. 18, 2023. / Credit: Reuters/Go Nakamura
People watch as SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket lifts off from the company's Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, as seen from South Padre Island, Texas, Nov. 18, 2023. / Credit: Reuters/Go Nakamura

While SpaceX's philosophy is to fly as soon as possible and learn from any mistakes, NASA will require a long string of successful missions before the agency will deem it safe to put astronauts aboard. SpaceX will no doubt resolve the issues that derailed Saturday's flight, but every delay poses a threat to NASA's moon landing timeline.

But a SpaceX post on social media said, "With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today's test will help us improve Starship's reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary."

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also was supportive.

"Congrats to the teams who made progress on today's flight test," he tweeted. "Spaceflight is a bold adventure demanding a can-do spirit and daring innovation. Today's test is an opportunity to learn-then fly again."

Shattering the morning calm at SpaceX's Boca Chica launch site on the Texas Gulf Coast, the Super Heavy's 33 methane-burning Raptor engines ignited with a torrent of flame at 8:03 a.m. EST, instantly engulfing the rocket in billowing clouds of dust and steam.

Gulping more than 40,000 pounds of methane and liquid oxygen per second, the 397-foot-tall, 11-million-pound rocket slowly climbed skyward, thrilling thousands of area residents, tourists and journalists who looked on from nearby South Padre Island.

The launching came nearly seven months after an April 20 maiden test flight ended in a spectacular conflagration four minutes after liftoff, triggered by multiple first stage engine failures, problems separating the Starship from the Super Heavy and a catastrophic tumble. Maximum altitude: 24 miles.

The second time around, the rocket got farther and several of the systems that derailed the first test flight appeared to work normally. All 33 Raptor engines powering the first stage fired throughout the boost phase of the flight and a new "hot staging" system, in which the Starship's engines ignited before separation, worked as designed.

SpaceX's Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket lifts off from the company's Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, as seen from South Padre Island, Texas, Nov. 18, 2023. / Credit: Reuters/Go Nakamura
SpaceX's Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket lifts off from the company's Boca Chica launchpad on an uncrewed test flight, as seen from South Padre Island, Texas, Nov. 18, 2023. / Credit: Reuters/Go Nakamura

Moments after separation, the first stage flipped around and began lining up for a planned controlled splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico, closer to the Texas coast. But moments later, it suddenly broke apart, possibly due to stresses imposed by the hot-staging technique.

The Starship, however, continued the climb toward space on the power of its six Raptor engines. All went well until about eight-and-a-half minutes into the flight when controllers lost contact with the rocket. The vehicle had disappeared from view in long-range tracking cameras by that point, but a sudden, shimmering disturbance in the atmosphere may have been a sign of the rocket's destruction.

"We have lost the data from the second stage," reported SpaceX engineer John Insprucker.

Musk, SpaceX's founder, could be seen huddling with flight controllers, looking at computer monitors to get a sense of what might have happened.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk, standing, third from right, discusses the launch with engineers at the company's mission control center in Boca Chica, Texas, Nov. 18, 2023. / Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX founder Elon Musk, standing, third from right, discusses the launch with engineers at the company's mission control center in Boca Chica, Texas, Nov. 18, 2023. / Credit: SpaceX

Moments later, Insprucker said, "The automated flight termination system on the second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn as we were headed downrange out over the Gulf of Mexico."

The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that it will be involved "in every step of the mishap investigation process and must approve the final mishap report, including the corrective actions."

"A return to flight of the Starship Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety," the statement said.

What worked — and what went wrong?

It's not yet known why the Super Heavy booster broke apart or why the Starship upper stage apparently failed just before or after engine shutdown. But SpaceX commentators said the primary goal of the flight, testing the hot-staging system for separating the upper and lower stages, appeared to work as planned.

Likewise, all 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy and the six powering the Starship appeared to fire normal for as long as the vehicles were visible. How other upgrades implemented in the wake of the April failure performed Saturday remains to be seen.

NASA is spending billions for a variant of the Starship to carry Artemis astronauts back to the surface of the moon. SpaceX is counting on the rocket to vastly expand its fleet of Starlink internet satellites and to power eventual low-cost government and commercial flights to the moon, Mars and beyond in keeping with Musk's drive to make humanity a "multi-planet species."

Multiple test flights will be needed to demonstrate the reliability required for astronaut flights and it's not yet clear how long that might take. While Saturday's launch was far from a complete success, it did demonstrate solid engine performance and successful stage separation.

In the April flight, the pad was seriously damaged, the Super Heavy suffered multiple premature engine shutdowns, the stage separation system did not work and the rocket's self-destruct system took longer than expected to activate.

The rocket reached a maximum altitude of 24 miles, well below the 50-mile altitude NASA considers the "boundary" of space, before tumbling back toward Earth and exploding in a fireball of burning propellant.

The FAA investigated the failure and cited "multiple root causes of the ... mishap and 63 corrective actions SpaceX must take to prevent mishap reoccurrence."

Musk said the company implemented "well over a thousand" changes to improve safety and performance. The company finally received the required FAA launch license earlier this week after a final review of the rocket's possible impact on area wildlife.

Along with hot staging, SpaceX added a powerful water deluge system to the launch pad to reduce the acoustic shock of engine ignition and the effects of their combined thrust. During the April launch, the base of the pad was heavily damaged, with steel and concrete debris blasted into the surrounding area.

Other major upgrades include the replacement of hydraulic actuators with an electrically driven engine steering system and an improved, faster-acting self-destruct system.

The most powerful rocket in the world

Musk believes the Super Heavy-Starship will open a new era in space transportation.

It is by far the largest, most powerful rocket ever built, standing 40 stories tall and tipping the scales at more than 11 million pounds when fully loaded with propellants.

Burning methane with liquid oxygen, the rocket is capable of generating a staggering 16.7 million pounds of thrust, more than twice the power of NASA's Space Launch System moon rocket and the legendary Apollo-era Saturn 5.

The Super Heavy first stage alone stands 230 feet tall while the Starship upper stage, designed to carry cargo, passengers or both, towers another 164 feet and is equipped with six Raptor engines of its own. It is capable of lifting up to 150 tons of cargo to low-Earth orbit.

SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft is removed from atop its Super Heavy rocket as it is prepared for launch, Nov. 16, 2023. / Credit: JOE SKIPPER / REUTERS
SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft is removed from atop its Super Heavy rocket as it is prepared for launch, Nov. 16, 2023. / Credit: JOE SKIPPER / REUTERS

Getting the Super Heavy-Starship flying on a regular basis is critical to NASA's Artemis moon program. NASA gave SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract in 2021 to develop a variant of the Starship upper stage to carry astronauts down to the lunar surface in the next two to three years.

To send a Starship to the moon, SpaceX must first refuel it in low-Earth orbit, robotically transferring thousands of gallons of super-cold cryogenic propellants carried up by multiple Starship "tankers." The number of tankers required is not yet known, but senior NASA managers have said more than a dozen will be needed for each Starship sent to the moon.

NASA's contract requires one unpiloted lunar test flight before astronauts will make a landing attempt. Artemis managers continue to officially target late 2025 for the first lunar landing with astronauts on board, but that's not remotely feasible given SpaceX's pace developing the Starship system.

It's also not known when SpaceX might be ready to launch paying customers aboard the new rocket. NASA's moon program aside, at least three all-civilian missions have been booked to date.

Billionaire Jared Isaacman, who charted the first private Crew Dragon flight to low Earth orbit in 2019, plans to be aboard for the first piloted orbital flight of a Starship as part of his Polaris Dawn program.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who paid the Russians for a visit to the International Space Station in 2021, also has chartered a Starship flight -- "Dear Moon" -- to carry him, an assistant and 10 artists and influencers on a privately funded around-the-moon voyage.

A third civilian Starship flight carrying 12 passengers, including space station veteran Dennis Tito and his wife, also has been booked. Tito paid the Russians an estimated $20 million for a visit to the International Space Station in 2001 and says he can't wait to get back into space and share the experience with his wife.

It's not known what SpaceX might be charging for a privately chartered Starship flight.

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