(Reuters) – The third time seemed to be the charm of Elon Musk’s Starship rocket, until it wasn’t.
SpaceX’s latest prototype heavy-duty launch vehicle soared seamlessly into the sky on a high-altitude test takeoff Wednesday from Boca Chica, Texas, then flew back to Earth to achieve the first vertical landing of a spaceship model.
But the triumph was short-lived. Leaning slightly to one side while an automatic fire suppression system directed a stream of water toward the flames still burning at the base of the rocket, the spacecraft exploded into pieces about eight minutes after landing.
It was the third such landing attempt to end in a fireball after a successful test flight for the Starship, developed by SpaceX to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the Moon and Mars.
For Musk, the billionaire founder of SpaceX who also runs electric car maker Tesla Inc, the result was mixed news.
The Starship SN10 came much closer to achieving a safe vertical landing than two previous models: SN8 in December and SN9 in February. In a tweet in response to restrained congratulations from a fan of his work, Musk replied, “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”
The video feed provided by SpaceX on the company’s YouTube channel was cut off moments after landing. But separate fan broadcasts broadcast by the same social media platform showed an explosion suddenly exploding at the base of the rocket, launching the SN10 into the air before it crashed to the ground and engulfed in flames.
The complete Starship rocket, which will stand 120 meters (394 feet) tall when docked with its super-heavy first-stage booster, is SpaceX’s next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle – the center of Musk’s ambitions to do make human space travel more affordable. and routine.
A first Starship orbital flight is scheduled for the end of the year. Musk has said that he intends to fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the moon with the Starship in 2023.
Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Joe Shaw in Washington; Edited by Kenneth Maxwell