Starship Completes High-Altitude Test Flight, Explodes During Landing (Updated)

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SpaceX’s latest Starship prototype exploded during landing following a successful high-altitude flight test on Wednesday. The uncrewed prototype, serial number 8 (SN8), flew for 6 minutes 42 seconds, completing a series of planned maneuvers and returning to the landing pad before the crash. The test took place at SpaceX’s facility in Cameron County, Texas.

“Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said on Twitter. “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed!”

According to SpaceX, test objectives for the flight included evaluating how SN8’s three Raptor engines perform, the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities of the vehicle and how it manages propellant transition. In keeping with its testing philosophy, the company has at least two additional prototypes built and ready to go. As previously reported by AVweb, SpaceX has lost a number of other Starship prototypes during testing.

Video: SpaceX
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Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Kate, with all due respect, your headline announcing the explosion on landing but nothing else while true does not accurately reflect the main part of the story. Your headline is worthy of the unwashed press, not an aviation publication. The main part of the story is that the prototype actually generated sought after data and demonstrated aerodynamic controllability. Your headline should have pointed to that. Personally I’m ambivalent regarding Mars exploration, but watching the technology develop is riveting and thanks to SpaceX we actually can watch it as it happened, successes and failures alike.

  2. It will be interesting to learn about the performance of the raptor engines during this test. Wondering if the cutoff of the two raptor engines happened in succession as fuel levels reached a certain point or due to “issues”. If you watch the video carefully the two raptors that cut out do so immediately after sudden and harsh gimble actions. Will be interesting to find out. Waiting now for SN9! 😊

  3. On Spacex twitter feed, they have a video of the flip from the ground almost directly under the rocket and you can see the landing burn starts with two engines starting in quick succession, then, close to the ground, one engine flames out. That flame out looked unplanned, unlike the engine shutdowns on ascent, although they did cause more fire than I think was expected. It seemed like a fuel delivery issue, which was always a concern from the start, hence the discussion of the header tanks.

    Thus it was a one engine inoperative (OEI) landing that didn’t go well. Not exactly the first to have that problem.

    It has the feel of accomplishing a great many test points, and also that the problem at the end seems quite solvable and not a threat to the overall concept. Basically, fix the fuel delivery problems so the engine doesn’t flame out, and give it another go.

    Mike C.

  4. People just don’t seem to understand how SpaceX has changed the space industry.

    Almost all our early space work was done by traditional aircraft companies like Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas. Obviously, when it came time to set up a test program, the people involved with aircraft testing would develop the test programs.

    They were used to having one or two precious prototypes. The overwhelming drive was to protect the aircraft; losing a prototype was bad PR, and all too often involved the loss of the pilot as well.

    Even worse was the loss of data. Telemetry systems were in their infancy; if the pilot were unable to talk afterwards, all you had was a couple of items (if that), radar data, and whatever you could glean from the burned wreckage.

    Even worse, with rockets, you don’t HAVE a pilot that might be able to report what happened. So the reliability folks went nuts, trying to ensure enough “nines” (e.g., 99.999999% chance of success) that it took forever until all the parties involved were ready to risk the hardware. If this precious prototype failed…well, there was a good possibility that everyone involved in the program would have to start looking for a new job.

    Musk has taken space science into the 21st century. Set up a production line to crank out a new vehicle quickly, telemeter the hell out of it, then light the candle and see what happens.

    Damn, that’s smart. If it crashes, you’ve already got more data than the Atlas, Titan, and Saturn developers could DREAM of, even if their launches were successful.

    If it crashes, laugh, roll out the next one (design them to be inexpensive from the getgo), make the changes your smart people recommend, fix things, and launch it again. The only unpardonable sin is losing the telemetry.

    I thoroughly enjoy how he’s got this attitude thoroughly ingrained in his employees. They cheer when it crashes…because they know there’s another one, almost ready to go, and they got tons of data to improve the new one. And they know they won’t be looking for new jobs next week.

    Anyone remember when SpaceX first started trying to fly the boosters back for re-use? How many times did we see a booster crash on the barge? How many times did people say, “Well, Musk must be about ready to give up”?

    Nowadays they fly back IN PAIRS and land in formation, near the pad they were launched from. And we watch the video (part of the telemetry stream) in real time.

    But folks seem to forget that, when one of the test birds fail….

    • Almost like the beginnings of aviation. From Kitty Hawk to a viable plane was less then 5 years. Can’t imagine the number of times they altered, tested, maybe crashed, and tried again.

      I too have followed SpaceX’s journey from the beginning and not only is he bringing space flight (design/testing/production) into the 21st Century, he is really inspiring a new generation of young people to see space as not just something for just “The Right Stuff”, but it can also be for the “smart stuff” too. I hope to be around when he lights up a Super Heavy with Starship on top with not just test pilots, but people ready to do work in space, Construction folk, service folk as well as scientists…meaning paid passengers.

  5. I log this as a spectacular failure on The Muskrat’s part and I derive joy from it. I’m just glad no human beta test subjects were harmed, but so much taxpayer dollars literally went up in smoke.

    He tried to spin it, and his worshippers make excuses, but a fireball can not be considered a happy ending.

  6. I watched the video slack-jawed – really exciting! Anyone know where to find a version of the video with altitude and position read-outs?

    I imagine the big explosion at the end gets lots more views on the evening news and social media than perfect landings – maybe 10/1. I am sure a marketing person knows that the SN8 hardware is a small price to pay for the eyeballs that explosions draws in. Either way, SpaceX is obviously very happy with the result.

  7. Haters gotta hate. As Ron W. quite eloquently observed, the primary goal was to test the ship and to gain data. A successful landing would have saved the company money, but would not have significantly added to their knowledge base – they already know how to land them. In this case, it was part of a new system (the header tanks) that apparently went bad – but the telemetry has already pointed to the error source (insufficient pressure). Meanwhile, the Starship successfully did its Buck Rogers imitation – performing maneuvers only dreamed of in simulations – and in its landing, destroyed the evil Emperor Ming once and for all!

    Of course, it would be a major setback if it took a while to hand build another prototype for the next test. But this article from ArsTechnica nicely explains why it is, indeed, a minor setback: https://tinyurl.com/tf9p5rg.

    [By the way, how many tax dollars were involved?]

  8. Hey Rush, I can see why you might think I’m a hater, but I’m not. I am amazed at the whole vertical landing/reusable rocket thing and honored and proud and thrilled about the Dragon capsule’s human spaceflight success.

    But I’ve always wondered, since the bent and buckling stainless steel days of early SNX’s, don’t they have enough engineering to nail this yet? I think if you’re trying to go to Mars you’re going to need the whole world knowing about it and paying attention.

    • “… don’t they have enough engineering to nail this yet?” They obviously have the engineering to nail this and are in the process of dialing it in. If the past is prologue that will happen. In spades.

      “I think if you’re trying to go to Mars you’re going to need the whole world knowing about it and paying attention.” Exactly. That is happening right before our eyes. In spades.

  9. I’m reminded of the following quote by Bruce Bohannon, holder of several time-to-climb world records:
    “Every time we’ve set a record we didn’t learn a thing – all we did was demonstrate what we already knew. Every test flight or record attempt that we failed at, we always learned something. We learned what we didn’t know or we learned that we didn’t know enough. There was always something valuable to learn.”