SpaceX’s giant new rocket exploded minutes after it took off for its first test flight Thursday and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico.
Elon Musk’s company aimed to send the largest and most powerful rocket ever built on a trip around the world from the southern tip of Texas, near the Mexican border. The 400-foot (120-meter) spacecraft carried no people or satellites.
The images showed that several of the 33 main engines were not firing as the spacecraft jumped off the launch pad, reaching an altitude of 24 miles (39 kilometers). There was no immediate word from SpaceX on how many engines failed to ignite or shut down prematurely.
The booster was supposed to yank away from the spacecraft three minutes after liftoff, but this did not happen. Instead, the rocket to which the spacecraft was still attached began to implode and then exploded, plunging into the bay.
Instead of a one-and-a-half-hour best-case scenario flight of the spacecraft around the world, the whole thing took four minutes. It reached a top speed of about 1,300 mph (2,100 km/h).
Crowds of onlookers watched from South Padre Island, several miles from the once off-limits Boca Chica Beach launch site. As the spacecraft took off with a thunderous roar, the crowd shouted: “Go, baby, go!”
Musk, in a tweet, called it out “Exciting test launch for Starship! I learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months.”
In the weeks leading up to the flight, Musk gave 50-50 odds that the spacecraft would reach orbit and not end up in what SpaceX calls “Quick and unscheduled dismantling.” Not blowing up the launch pad, he said, would be a win.
“You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” said SpaceX commentator and engineer John Insprucker. “But as promised, excitement is guaranteed and Starship has given us a rather spectacular ending.”
The company intends to use the Starship to send people and cargo to the moon, and eventually to Mars. NASA has booked a Starship for its next team to walk on the moon, and wealthy tourists are already booking lunar flights.
Despite the shortened trip, congratulations poured in from NASA President Bill Nelson and others in the space industry. Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted, “Huge achievement, huge lessons, on to the next try.”
At 394 feet and nearly 17 million pounds of thrust, the spacecraft easily outpace NASA’s moon rockets–past, present, and future. The stainless steel rocket is designed to be fully reusable with a quick turnaround, which lowers costs significantly, similar to what SpaceX’s smaller Falcon rockets did to soar from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Nothing was salvaged from this test flight, as the spacecraft was – if all goes well – aiming for a watery grave in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
The futuristic spacecraft flew several miles in the air during a test a few years ago, landing successfully only once. But this was to be the inaugural launch of the first stage of a booster with 33 methane-fueled engines.
SpaceX has more boosters and spacecraft lined up for more test flights; The next group is almost ready to go. Musk wants to launch them in quick succession, so he can start using Starships to launch satellites into low Earth orbit and then put people on board.
It was the second launch attempt. Monday’s attempt was canceled by a frozen booster valve.
Jason and Lisa Flores set out from Corpus Christi to watch the launch with their daughter, and noticed that something was amiss.
Lisa Flores cried seeing take off and then realized, “It just doesn’t work the way it was supposed to.”
Elizabeth Trujillo, 13, wears “star Wars” Shirtless and carrying game binoculars, she skipped school to watch the launch from the beach with her mom and other relatives. The crowd cheered as Starship removed the tower.
despite the failed attempt, “It was worth it,” said Jessica Trujillo, Elizabeth’s mother. “Just hearing and seeing the view, and the excitement of the crowd, was invaluable.”
“With training comes mastery. They just have to practice more.” she added.
AP reporter Valerie Gonzalez contributed.
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