Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: SpaceX just launched one of its shiny new Starship prototypes. The spacecraft took off as planned, reached its intended altitude, performed well in all aspects, and then crashed into a fiery heap of twisted metal. Sound familiar? Well, that’s because it’s happened before… many times. The latest victim was the SN11 Starship prototype which was shot skyward and traveled over six miles into the air before returning to Earth for a landing attempt.
Because of some intense fog at the launch and landing location, video footage of the takeoff and crash are of incredibly poor quality. The onboard camera on the Starship died before the spacecraft hit the ground, and even footage being shot from the ground doesn’t actually show the crash happen. We know it did happen, however, because a massive boom and huge chunks of the spacecraft were sent flying.
The launch was the fourth high-altitude test for Starship and follows a string of stellar launches matched with poor landings. We’ve seen Starship prototypes slam into the ground before, effectively turning them into a bomb upon impact, and this attempt appears to be in line with those as well.
Final view of SN11 in the air:
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) March 30, 2021
The SN10 prototype fared quite a bit better, with the spacecraft actually managing to come down on its end and at least a couple of its landing legs. Unfortunately, not all of the legs deployed as intended, and the rocket was left tilted to one side. It eventually exploded as well, and an investigation suggested that the boom was a result of a buildup of flammable gas that caught fire and obliterated the entire vehicle.
SN11 didn’t want to wait until after landing to explode and apparently did so by crashing into the ground instead. It’s unclear exactly what wrong this time around. In the past, the spacecraft has failed to perform its “kick” maneuver at the end of its descent to line up its bottom end with the ground, and that may have also been this case today. We’ll have to wait until SpaceX comes out with its statement before knowing for sure.
SpaceX takes a lot of risks, and you can credit a lot of the company’s biggest accomplishments with its willingness to try things over and over again, failing along the way, before finally figuring it out. The company has famously celebrated its missteps alongside its successes, and while no Starship prototype has stuck its landing after a high-altitude test thus far, SpaceX has a lot of very smart people working on it and it’ll figure it out sooner or later.
Despite the testing of nearly a dozen prototypes, the Starship program is still in a very, very early stage. Elon Musk has said that he hopes the spacecraft will become the default means of transportation between Earth and Mars, and eventually hopes to future versions of the vehicle travel to other star systems. Before it can do any of that, it needs to figure out how to land.