A prototype of SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded during a landing attempt minutes after a high-altitude experimental launch from Boca Chica, Texas, on February 2, in a repeat of an accident that destroyed a previous test rocket.
The Starship SN9 that blew up on its final descent, like the SN8 before it, was a test model of the heavy-lift rocket being developed by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s private space company to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars.
“We had again another great flight,” said a SpaceX announcer on live footage that was broadcast online. “We’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit,” he added.
The self-guided, 16-story-tall rocket initially soared into the clear, blue South Texas sky from its Gulf Coast launch pad on what appeared from SpaceX’s live stream coverage to be a flawless liftoff.
Reaching its peak altitude of about 10 km (6 miles), the spacecraft then hovered momentarily in midair, shut off its engines and executed a planned “belly-flop” maneuver to descend nose-down under aerodynamic control back toward Earth.
The trouble came when the Starship, after flipping its nose upward again to begin its landing sequence, tried to reactivate two of its three Raptor thrusters, but one failed to ignite. The rocket then fell rapidly to the ground, exploding in a roaring ball of flames, smoke and debris – 6 minutes and 26 seconds after launch.
“The FAA’s top priority in regulating commercial space transportation is ensuring that operations are safe, even if there is an anomaly,” an agency spokesperson said in a statement, using the industry term for a launch failure. “The FAA will oversee the investigation of landing mishap involving the SpaceX Starship SN9 prototype in Boca Chica, Texas,” he added.