The SpaceX test rocket for Mars goes up again, and explodes again

Written By: Kenneth Chang © 2021 The New York Times Company The New York Times
Washington, United States Published: Mar 30, 2021, 09:52 PM(IST)

A spectator holds a piece of debris which was blown 5 miles (8 km) from the site where SpaceX test rocket SN11 exploded upon landing, in Boca Chica, Texas Photograph:( Reuters )

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Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said on Twitter there appeared to be a problem with one of the engines during the ascent and it did not quite work properly when it reignited for landing

On Tuesday morning, for the fourth time, SpaceX attempted a high-altitude test of its next-generation rocket, and for the fourth time, it exploded.

Through a series of test flights since December, SpaceX has successfully launched prototypes of Starship, intended to take people to Mars one day, and after reaching an altitude of several miles, demonstrated a controlled belly flop back toward to the ground. But each time, the rocket encountered trouble during or after landing, resulting in spectacular explosions.

This time, something went wrong earlier, as the engines reignited at the start of the landing procedure. Video from SpaceX then froze, at 5 minutes, 49 seconds after liftoff.

Coverage by NASASpaceflight, a website for space enthusiasts, showed shards of metal raining down around the launch site including debris that hit one of the cameras.

“Looks like we’ve had another exciting test,” said John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer narrating the company’s webcast.

The launch was shrouded in early morning fog with little visible except from cameras on Starship.

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said on Twitter there appeared to be a problem with one of the engines during the ascent and it did not quite work properly when it reignited for landing.

The previous test, on March 3, accomplished a feat that none of the earlier flights had managed: The spacecraft landed back at the launch site but leaning at the landing pad.

Moments after SpaceX’s commentators declared that test a success and concluded its live webcast, a camera maintained by NASASpaceflight captured the rocket exploding on the ground.

Musk’s company has become successful in the launch business, and it is now one of the world’s most valuable privately held companies. Its Falcon 9 rockets have become a dominant workhorse for sending satellites to orbit. It routinely transports cargo to the International Space Station and lifted NASA astronauts there twice in 2020, with more trips planned this year.

With the latest failure, Starship is a long way from being ready for a trip to orbit. But SpaceX already has its eyes on future tests that will lift subsequent Starship prototypes to much greater altitudes. Earlier this month, Musk shared a picture of a prototype of the large booster stage that will be needed for a trip to space. It is more than 200 feet tall.

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