STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS & USED WITH PERMISSION
SpaceX launched a prototype Starship rocket Tuesday from its Boca Chica, Texas, flight facility, successfully sending the silver booster up to an altitude of about six miles as planned. But the unpiloted test flight ended with a spectacular explosion when the rocket failed to right itself and slow down enough for a tail-first landing.
It was the second landing mishap in a row for the futuristic rocket system as SpaceX continues rapid-fire development of the super-heavy-lift rocket that SpaceX founder Elon Musk says will eventually launch payloads and astronauts to the moon and beyond.
Mirroring a Dec. 8 test flight, the Starship prototype, known as serial number nine or SN9 for short, blasted off from SpaceX’s Gulf Coast launch site about 3:25 p.m. and climbed away through a cloudless sky on the power of three methane-burning Raptor engines.
The launching came after delays last week when the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that licenses such test flights, reportedly did not grant clearance pending additional review. That prompted complaints from Musk, but the issue was resolved in time for Tuesday’s test.
The launching appeared to go smoothly. As the rocket gained altitude, one engine, then two, were shut down as planned.
Finally, reaching maximum altitude about four-and-a-half minutes after launch, the third engine shut down and the Starship tilted over on its side, using big fins at nose and tail to help maintain orientation during the long plunge back to Earth.
As it neared the ground, at least one engine restarted and the rocket attempted to right itself as programmed for a tail-first touchdown a few hundred feet from the launch pad.
But the flip to vertical appeared to come late and it wasn’t clear if a second engine attempted to fire or not. In any case, the rocket slammed into the ground at an angle about six-and-a-half minutes after takeoff, exploding on impact in a fireball of burning propellant and debris.
Another Starship prototype, SN10, was mounted nearby on its own launch stand and suffered no apparent damage from the explosion of SN9. When SpaceX might attempt to launch SN10 is not known.
As currently envisioned, the Starship will be made up of a 230-foot-tall “Super Heavy” first stage generating 16 million pounds of thrust, more than twice as much as NASA’s Saturn 5 moon rocket. A first-stage prototype has not yet been completed.
The rocket’s 160-foot second stage, also confusingly known as Starship, will use a half-dozen methane-oxygen Raptor engines and would be capable of carrying 100 tons of payload to low-Earth orbit. For comparison, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket can put about 30 tons into orbit.
As with the test flight of Starship SN8 in December, SN9 featured a prototype of the Starship second stage, this one using just three Raptor engines.
At least three versions of the Starship are envisioned: one for carrying heavy payloads to Earth orbit, the moon or Mars, one designed to carry propellants for orbital refueling operations and one capable of carrying up to 100 passengers at a time.