March 7, 2021

SpaceX’s Starship flies high-altitude test that ends with a bang – and congrats from Jeff Bezos

Video during the SpaceX Starship test flight shows the rocket in bellyflop during its descent. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX put its Starship super-rocket through its first high-altitude test today – and although the flight ended in a fiery crash, the performance was impressive enough to draw congratulations from Jeff Bezos, who’s locked in a multibillion-dollar rivalry with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.

“Anybody who knows how hard this stuff is is impressed by today’s Starship test,” Bezos, who’s the CEO of Amazon as well as the founder of the Blue Origin space venture, said in an Instagram post.

“Big congrats to the whole SpaceX team. I’m confident they’ll be back at it soon. ”

Today’s launch marked a giant leap for Musk’s vision of sending settlers to Mars on future Starships. The rocket and its Super Heavy booster are being designed to take on missions ranging from satellite deployments and point-to-point terrestrial travel to moon landings, Mars trips and odysseys to the outer planets.

Far less powerful prototypes have taken low-altitude hops at SpaceX’s Starship construction and testing complex at Boca Chica in South Texas, but this 160-foot-high prototype – known as SN8 – was the first to rise several miles into the air, powered by three methane-fueled Raptor engines.

The Federal Aviation Administration cleared the airspace for today’s launch attempt, as well as an attempt on Tuesday that was aborted at the last second when the rocket’s computers detected an engine anomaly.

Today the countdown went through an initial hold at around the two-minute mark, but SpaceX reset the clock for liftoff at 4:45 pm CT (2:45 pm PT). At the appointed time, Starship SN8 rose slowly off its pad as more than 700,000 online onlookers watched via SpaceX’s webcast.

Toward the end of the ascent, the Merlin engines powered down, one by one. For this flight, SpaceX was targeting a maximum altitude of 12.5 kilometers (7.8 miles). In a post-flight tweet, Musk pronounced the ascent successful.

For the descent, Starship SN8 pitched into a horizontal “bellyflop” position and used its fins for aerodynamic control. As it approached its landing target, the rocket relit one of its engines and reoriented itself in a vertical position.

Starship couldn’t slow itself down enough for a graceful touchdown. Instead, it smashed to the ground and blew up in a spectacular fireball – also known as a rapid unplanned disassembly, or RUD.

That didn’t faze Musk. “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed!” he tweeted. “Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah !!”

SpaceX follows a strategy of building a series of Starship prototypes in quick succession, and subjecting them to tests that often have a fiery end. That’s in contrast with the slow-and-steady approach that Bezos’ Blue Origin has been taking with its New Shepard suborbital spaceship and its orbital-class New Glenn rocket.

Musk is counting on that approach to lead to orbital flights with Starship and the Super Heavy booster by as early as 2021, followed by trips to the moon in as little as two years and the first launch to Mars in the 2024 time frame.

In its closing message for today’s webcast, SpaceX’s team suggested that it won’t be long before another Starship has its day in the sun. The message read: “SN9 Up Next!”

Musk went even further on Twitter: “Mars, here we come !!”