A giant experimental rocket built by SpaceX successfully took off eight miles above the company’s test facilities in South Texas on Wednesday. But before landing, the rocket exploded and hit the ground in a huge plume of flame and smoke.
No one was aboard the huge rocket – it was an early development of the Starship model, a spacecraft proposed by Elon Musk for a future mission to Mars and to orbit massive satellites on Earth.
Musk attempted to defuse expectations before the flight, stating in one tweet that he predicted the vehicle’s “SN8” – the name of the Starship prototype used Wednesday – had a one-in-three chance of landing safely back on Earth.
It was later learned that a problem with the rocket’s fuel system caused the crash. Green and yellow flames engulfed the landing pad, which is near the small coastal town of Boca Chica, Texas.
SpaceX and Musk have been known to allow failures in the early stages of testing new space technology. The company’s idea is to act quickly and learn from mistakes, instead of taking a more NASA-like approach of slowly conducting thorough research and ground testing before putting a rocket on the launch pad.
Several previous Starship prototypes have been destroyed during pressure tests, which are designed to test whether the vehicle can withstand tremendous pressure in flight. SpaceX didn’t disclose before the flight what the test should look like, but shortly after takeoff, one of the three Starship SN8 engines shut down. It didn’t seem to have much effect on the spacecraft’s maneuvers in the air. When all three engines were turned off, the rocket reoriented at an angle during flight, a move Musk introduced during a presentation in September 2019, saying it was a method of landing the spacecraft to simulate a parachutist falling through the air. Musk said he hopes the fully operational starship will tilt about 60 degrees, lowering its belly toward Earth as it dives back through the atmosphere to make it less aerodynamic and reduce speed.