SpaceX’s second launch attempt of its giant Starship rocket once again ended in destruction, though the company declared the test flight a success. Lifting off on November 18 at 1:03 pm CT from the Starbase launch site near Boca Chica, Florida, the Starship second stage reached the edge of space before contact was lost.
Saturday’s launch follows on from the first attempt to fly a completely assembled Starship rocket on April 20, 2023, which ended four minutes into the flight when the second stage failed to separate and the launch vehicle exploded – or, as SpaceX likes to call such events, experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
This was followed by months of delays as the company incorporated new design elements into the rocket as well as a stinging FAA investigation that mandated new safety systems and a major upgrade of the launch pad at Starbase after the exhaust from the largest and most powerful rocket ever made blasted a giant hole in the concrete and scattered dust and debris for miles around.
Despite a last-minute hold at T Minus 40 seconds, the lift off of Starship initially went as planned as the 121-m (397-ft) vehicle rose from the pad under the thrust of 33 Raptor engines. The hot-fire stage separation (the first ever for a reusable rocket), was successful, but when the Falcon Super Heavy Booster first stage attempted to restart its engines for a return trajectory, a major malfunction occurred and the booster self-destructed at the three-minute, 20-second mark.
Meanwhile, the second stage, also called Starship, continued its flight as it maintained its orbital trajectory that was scheduled to terminate in a water landing off the Hawaiian Islands 90 minutes later. Unfortunately, an unknown error occurred and contact was lost over the Gulf of Mexico at about the six-minute mark. The flight terminated about eight minutes and 40 seconds into the flight with debris from Starship coming down somewhere northeast of the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Despite the early termination of both stages, SpaceX regards the mission a success because of the stage separation and Starship reaching the edge of space. The telemetry data returned will be used to improve designs and procedures in anticipation of the next test.