In its second-ever test launch, Elon Musk-owned Space's Starship lifted off successfully on Saturday and entered space but was lost shortly afterwards.
The Starship, comprising the Super Heavy booster and the Starship spacecraft, is the most powerful spacecraft ever built. It holds NASA's contract to take astronauts to the Moon in the Artemis-III and IV missions.
While the launch failed, it marked an improvement from the first time Starship flew in April. Then, Starship lifted off and flew to around 25 miles (40 km) before bursting into flames four minutes into the flight during the stage in which the Super Heavy booster and the Starship rocket were to separate. This time, the two successfully separated but the booster exploded shortly after. While the booster exploded, the Starship —the core spacecraft that would carry astronauts or cargo— continued upwards and reached an altitude of 90 miles (144 kms), meaning it reached space. Then, it was supposed to circuit the Earth and splash down, but, instead, contact was lost with the spacecraft around 12 minutes into the flight.
Moreover, Starship fired all of its Raptor engines, which are being seen as an achievement. In line with the SpaceX's ethos of failing fast, learning from its failure, and improving its platforms, the company in a brief statement said "today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary".
In a brief statement on Twitter, SpaceX said, "Congratulations to the entire SpaceX team on an exciting second integrated flight test of Starship! Starship successfully lifted off under the power of all 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy Booster and made it through stage separation.
"The booster experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly shortly after stage separation while Starship's engines fired for several minutes on its way to space. With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary."
Congratulations to the entire SpaceX team on an exciting second integrated flight test of Starship!— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 18, 2023
Starship successfully lifted off under the power of all 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy Booster and made it through stage separation pic.twitter.com/JnCvLAJXPi
While SpaceX declared 12 minutes into the flight that contact was lost with the spacecraft, the complete trip would have taken around 90 minutes. In April, the spacecraft exploded four minutes into the flight.
NASA is keenly watching the progress of the Starship as its Lunar programme depends on it. Under the Artemis programme, humans would return to the Moon for the first time in five decades. These missions would not be just short exploratory missions but would be geared towards establishing a long-term presence on the Moon, making it a base camp and a stepping stone for missions to Mars and beyond. While the Artemis-III was initially scheduled for 2025, the delays with Starship means NASA believes the mission would likely slip to 2026.
While Starship has resolved issues flagged in the first test launch and it has hailed the second launch too, it has not yet had a successful demonstration of operability. NASA has said that up to 19 successful demonstrations could be required before Starship takes humans to the Moon, according to Space News. Earlier in 2021, when it emerged that NASA could require 16 successful launches, Musk publicly disagreed and said four to eight launches would be needed to demonstrate the operability of the spacecraft.