Seven months after a catastrophic failure, SpaceX’s gargantuan, the most powerful rocket ever built, blasted off on its Saturday in an attempt to boost the unpiloted Starship upper stage into space for the first time.
Shattering the morning calm at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site on the Texas Gulf Coast, the Super Heavy’s 33 methane-burning Raptor engines ignited with a torrent of flaming exhaust and a ground-shaking roar at about 8 a.m. ET.
The 397-foot-tall rocket slowly climbed skyward as it gulped 40,000 pounds of methane and liquid oxygen per second, putting on a spectacular show for thousands of area residents, tourists and journalists who looked on from nearby South Padre Island.
The launch followed an initial April 20 test flight thatfour minutes after liftoff when multiple first stage engine failures, problems separating the Starship from the Super Heavy booster and a catastrophic tumble triggered the rocket’s self-destruct system.
In the wake of the mishap, the FAA ordered 63 “corrective” items and SpaceX founder Elon Musk said the company implemented “well over a thousand” changes” to improve safety and performance.
The flight plan called for the Super Heavy first stage to boost the Starship upper stage out of the lower atmosphere. From there, the Starship’s own engines were expected to continue the climb to space. If all goes well, the ship was to loop around the planet, re-entering the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean and splashing down north of Hawaii.
While both stages are designed to be fully reusable, flying themselves to landing pads for refurbishment and reuse, SpaceX said no attempt would be made to recover either one after this initial test flight. The primary goal was to test the rocket’s propulsion and control systems in an actual climb to space.
A successful flight would mark a major milestone for both SpaceX and for NASA, which is spending billions for a variant of the Starship to carry Artemis astronauts back to the surface of the moon.
SpaceX is counting on the rocket to vastly expand its fleet of Starlink internet satellites and to power eventual low-cost government and commercial flights to the moon, Mars and beyond.
Multiple test flights will be needed to demonstrate the reliability required for astronaut flights and it’s not yet clear how long that might take or when the first Artemis moon landing might take place.
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