SpaceX conducted the inaugural test flight of Starship, a silver mega-rocket that could potentially transport humans to Mars and other planets. Although the rocket exploded about four minutes after takeoff, the fact that it cleared the launchpad and flew for that duration is a remarkable accomplishment for a first test flight. Starship comprises a spacecraft – a reusable crew and cargo capsule measuring 50 meters in height – mounted on top of a 70-meter Super Heavy rocket booster. SpaceX tested the booster’s 33 Raptor engines in February, but the Super Heavy booster remained anchored at that time.
The US Federal Aviation Administration gave SpaceX the green light to launch Starship in its full configuration just last week, and founder Elon Musk had expressed uncertainty about the rocket’s odds of success. While he believed the rocket had only a 50% chance of making it into orbit on its first test flight, Musk predicted that it had an 80% chance of achieving that goal by year-end.
“I’m not saying it will get to orbit,” Musk said at the Morgan Stanley Conference on March 7, “but I am guaranteeing excitement!”
SpaceX intends for Starship to be a reusable rocket similar to Falcon 9, capable of carrying humans to and from other planets. Falcon 9 encountered numerous failed attempts and landing pad explosions before it became a regular mode of transportation for objects and people to the International Space Station.
NASA is also working on a heavy rocket for Mars, the Space Launch System (SLS), which successfully launched for the first time in November. The agency plans to transport astronauts to lunar orbit by November 2024. Although Starship is more powerful than the SLS and reusable, SpaceX’s ultimate objective is to launch a Starship into orbit and then refuel it with another Starship to facilitate travel to other planets.
“Full rapid reusability … is the profound breakthrough that is needed to extend life beyond Earth,” Musk said in the Morgan Stanley Conference interview. “It lowers the cost of access to space by orders of magnitude.”
“This vehicle could make life multiplanetary. That’s a really big deal.”