© Reuters. Spectators watch as SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft, atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket, prepares to launch from the company’s Boca Chica launch pad during an uncrewed test flight, near from Brownsville, Texas, United States on November 17, 2023.
By Joe Skipper, Joey Roulette and Steve Gorman
BOCA CHICA, Texas (Reuters) – SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft, developed to carry astronauts to the Moon and beyond, was scheduled to blast off on Saturday for another test launch from seven-month-old South Texas after the end of his first attempt to reach space. with an explosion.
The uncrewed launch was scheduled to take place during a 20-minute window starting at 7 a.m. CST (1 p.m. GMT) at SpaceX’s Starbase site in the Gulf of Mexico near Boca Chica. Starship climbed atop its massive Super Heavy rocket booster in what will be the second attempt to fly the two vehicles together.
The goal of the mission is to launch the Starship in Texas and send it into space just before reaching orbit, then plunging into Earth’s atmosphere for a splashdown off the coast of Hawaii . The launch was scheduled for Friday but was pushed back a day due to a last-minute swap of flight control hardware.
A successful test flight would mark a key step toward realizing SpaceX’s ambition to produce a large, multipurpose spacecraft capable of returning people and cargo to the Moon later this decade for NASA, and ultimately to Mars.
Elon Musk – founder, CEO and chief engineer of SpaceX – also sees Starship as eventually replacing the Falcon 9 rocket, the centerpiece of its launch business, which already carries most of the world’s satellites and other commercial payloads in space.
NASA, SpaceX’s main customer, has a considerable interest in the success of Starship, in which the American space agency intends to play a central role in its human spaceflight program, Artemis, successor to the Apollo missions of more half a century that put astronauts on the Moon for the first time.
Starship’s massive first stage booster, powered by 33 Raptor engines, puts the total height of the rocket system at about 400 feet (122 meters) and produces thrust twice as powerful as the Saturn V rocket that sent the astronauts of Apollo on the moon.
SpaceX aims to at least surpass the performance of Starship-Super Heavy during its April 20 test flight, when the two-stage spacecraft exploded in less than four minutes during a planned 90-minute flight .
This theft went wrong from the start. SpaceX acknowledged that some of the Super Heavy’s 33 Raptor engines malfunctioned during climb and that the lower stage booster rocket failed to separate as planned from the ship’s upper stage before launch. end of flight.
The company’s engineering culture, considered more risk-tolerant than that of many more established players in the aerospace industry, relies on a flight test strategy that pushes spacecraft to the point of failure, then refines the improvements through frequent repetition.
A failure at any point in the test flight would be a major concern for NASA, which is counting on SpaceX’s rapid rocket development philosophy to quickly get humans to the Moon, part of America’s competition with ambitions moons of China.
Judging the success or failure of the outcome may be far from clear, depending on how far the spacecraft traveled this time. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who has made the rivalry with China a key need for speed, compared the Starship test campaign to the success of SpaceX’s past rocket development efforts.
“How did they develop the Falcon 9? They went through a lot of tests, sometimes it exploded,” Nelson told Reuters on Tuesday. “They would find out what was wrong, fix it and then go back.”
The combined spacecraft in April reached a maximum altitude of about 25 miles (40 km), only halfway through space to its target altitude of 90 miles (150 km), before bursting into flames.
Musk said an internal fire during the Starship’s ascent damaged its engines and computers, sending it off course, and that an automatic kill command was activated about 40 seconds later than planned to make explode the rocket.
The launch pad itself was shattered by the force of the takeoff, which also sparked a 3.5-acre (1.4-hectare) bushfire. No one was hurt. SpaceX has since reinforced the launch pad with a massive water-cooled steel plate, one of dozens of remedial measures required by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration before granting a launch license for the second test flight.