Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its Starship rocket from the south Texas coast shortly after 7 a.m. Central Time on Saturday, a mammoth vehicle that could alter the future of space transportation and help NASA return astronauts to the moon.
Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket to ever fly. SpaceX aims to make both parts of the vehicle fully and quickly reusable. That gives it the potential to launch larger, heavier payloads into space and significantly reduce the cost of launching satellites, space telescopes, people and the things they need to live in space.
The second flight of Starship, a powerful vehicle designed to take NASA astronauts to the moon, was not a complete success. SpaceX did not achieve the ultimate goal of the test launch: a partial trip around the world that ended with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.
But the flight showed that the company had fixed key problems that arose during the first test flight in April. The 33 engines of the vehicle’s lower booster stage ignited and the rocket managed to overcome stage separation, when the booster drops and the six engines of the upper stage ignite to carry the vehicle into space.
“Just beautiful,” said John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer who was one of the commentators on the SpaceX webcast.
In contrast, Starship’s first launch severely damaged the launch site, several booster engines failed, fires knocked out the rocket’s steering, and the flight termination system took too long to explode.
In the “fail fast, learn faster” approach adopted by SpaceX toward rocket design, successfully avoiding a repeat of past failures is considered a major advance.
However, the second flight revealed new challenges that Musk’s engineers must overcome.
Shortly after stage separation, the booster exploded—an “unscheduled rapid disassembly” in the jargon of rocket engineers. The upper stage Starship spacecraft continued heading toward orbit for several more minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 90 miles, but then SpaceX lost contact, likely after the flight termination system detonated.
Engineers will now have to figure out what went wrong with both the booster and the upper stage spacecraft, correct it, and try again.
Many outside observers are optimistic that SpaceX will get Starship fully operational.
“They’ve fixed issues identified on their first flight and gone further than ever with this type of vehicle,” said Phil Larson, who served as a White House space adviser during the Obama administration and later worked on communications efforts at SpaceX. “The magic of engineering is that it’s about learning, iterating the design and flying again soon.”
Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, agreed. “This is a great launch system,” he said. “It will take some work to get where it needs to go. “I have no doubt that the SpaceX team will be able to figure out how to make the launch vehicle work.”
The result of the test ride was also the latest split-screen moment in the career of Musk, a serial entrepreneur who previously transformed electronic payments with PayPal and electric cars with Tesla. As SpaceX prepared for Friday’s flight, Disney and Apple stopped its advertising investment with another of his companies, the social network X, after Musk’s endorsement on Wednesday of an anti-Semitic publication.