On Tuesday, a test flight of SpaceX’s Starship, a huge next-generation spacecraft that Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of the private rocket company, dreams of one day sending to Mars, came to an explosive end. That brief flight, to an altitude of about 32000 ft and then back to a landing pad, appeared to again demonstrate how the mammoth rocket would tip over on its side as it descended in a controlled belly flop back toward a landing.
But when the prototype fired its engines to right itself back to a vertical orientation, it appeared that one engine did not properly ignite, and Starship hit the ground at an angle, disintegrating in a fireball, leaving a cloud of smoke rising over the test site in Boca Chica, Texas. The flight was similar to the last test flight in December which sadly also ended in an explosion on landing, although the particular cause of the rocket failing to slow down enough may have been different.
On Tuesday evening, the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates rocket launches, announced that it will oversee an investigation of why the prototype crashed. “Although this was an uncrewed test flight, the investigation will identify the root cause of today’s mishap and possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops,” an agency spokesman said in a statement.
Last week, SpaceX and government regulators seemed to be in a strange stand-off. SpaceX had filled the propellant tanks of this prototype of Starship and looked ready to launch. But then the rocket stayed on the ground when no approval from the FAA arrived.
South African born Elon Musk expressed frustration on Twitter, describing the part of the FAA that oversees SpaceX as “fundamentally broken.” Musk wrote, “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
Late on Monday, the FAA gave permission for Yesterday's launch, but then revealed that the December launch had occurred without the agency’s approval. SpaceX had requested a waiver to conduct that flight even though it had not shown that a pressure wave that could be generated by an explosion during the test would not pose a danger to the public. The FAA denied the request. SpaceX defied the ruling and launched anyway. Even if Starship had landed perfectly, launching it without approval was a violation of the company’s license.
“The FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident, including a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline,” an agency spokesman said in a statement released Tuesday evening.
SpaceX was also told to halt testing that could endanger the public until the company made changes that satisfied the agency. The FAA said the resulting changes improved safety and were incorporated into Tuesday’s launch. “We anticipate taking no further enforcement action,” the FAA statement said.
Mr Musk’s company has become successful in the launch business, and it is now one of the world’s most valuable privately held companies. It's Falcon 9 rockets have become a dominant workhorse for sending satellites to orbit. It routinely transports cargo to the International Space Station and has lifted NASA astronauts there twice in 2020, with more trips planned this year.
However, many are sceptical about Mr Musk’s assertion that the company is just a few years from sending a Starship to Mars, saying he has repeatedly set timelines for SpaceX that proved far too optimistic in how quickly they have come to pass.
In 2019, when he provided an update on the development of Starship, he said a high-altitude test would occur within months and that orbital flights could occur early in 2020. Instead, several catastrophic failures happened because of faulty welding. When the propellant tanks stopped rupturing, one of the prototypes made a short successful flight in September. That earlier Starship model, which resembled a spray paint can with the label removed, lifted itself nearly 500 feet using a single rocket engine before setting down at the Texas test site.
“It’s important for people to understand that the FAA’s job is not to stop launches from occurring,” he said. “They are in the business of licensing launches.” The agency’s role is to ensure safety for what it calls the “uninvolved public” people not involved with SpaceX or the launch so that someone just walking around or sitting at home is not injured or killed if something goes wrong.
“I think it would be really hard to find an example of where the FAA has stopped SpaceX from doing what it wanted to do” before the December incident, Mr Zambrano-Stout said.
The next Starship prototype, the tenth, has already been built and rolled out to the launchpad. It could fly later this month, Mr Insprucker said during the webcast.
As SpaceX continues its development of Starship, it has already launched three other rockets this year. One mission, Transporter-1, launched on Sunday and carried 133 commercial and government spacecraft. The launch represented SpaceX’s entry into the business known as ride-share, in which numerous customers pay for a fraction of the cost of a trip to orbit.