By The Washington Post · Christian Davenport
The SpaceX Starship spacecraft lifted off from its launchpad in South Texas at about 9 a.m. Eastern time in dense fog and cruised to an altitude of about six miles under the power of three engines. As it had done previously, the rocket prototype then shut off its engines, flipped horizontally and started falling back to Earth.
The spacecraft, dubbed Serial Number 11, or SN11, was supposed to then reorient itself, restart its engines and then touch down softly on a landing pad. But at some point, the vehicle blew up, and John Insprucker, SpaceX's principal integration engineer, said the company "lost all the data from the vehicle."
He added, for viewers watching a frozen image of the spacecraft's engines on the screen: "Starship 11 is not coming back. Don't wait for the landing."
On a webcast provided by NASAspaceflight.com, a space news website that carries the Starship flights, debris could be seen crashing down. And SpaceX CEO Musk tweeted, "At least the crater is in the right place!" He added that "a high production rate solves many ills," meaning the next prototype should be ready before too long and the company would try again.
To ensure people's safety in the event of an explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration requires SpaceX to evacuate the nearby village and keep people miles away from the launch and landing site. Nearby roads are closed, and local law enforcement help secure a wide safety zone around the area. There were no reports of injuries.
The landing attempt was SpaceX's fourth try since December, when a series of Starships launched successfully, fell back toward the landing site, but exploded on the ground. The test campaign is designed to push the limits and gather a lot of data quickly so the company can iterate and try again.
Musk has said he wants Starship to reach orbit by the end of this year. NASA has awarded SpaceX a $135 million contract to help develop Starship so that it might fly astronauts to the moon as part of its Artemis program.
The flight came days after Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., chairman of the aviation subcommittee, wrote in a letter that they were concerned about "the pressure exerted on the FAA during high profile launches. While the commercial space transportation sector is crucial to our Nation's future, at no point should a commercial space launch jeopardize public safety."
They were referring to a tweet by Musk in January, when he took aim at the FAA, saying it moves too slowly and is too bureaucratic.
"Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure," he wrote. "Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars."
In December, SpaceX had sought a waiver from the FAA that would have allowed it "to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations," the agency said at the time.
The waiver was denied, but SpaceX proceeded with the flight anyway, violating its launch license and, industry officials said, potentially putting the public at risk.
The FAA directed SpaceX to conduct an internal investigation. But in the letter to Steve Dickson, the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, DeFazio and Larsen wrote they were "disappointed that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action."
They urged the agency to "resist any potential undue influence on launch safety decision-making" and "establish explicitly a strict policy to deal with violations of FAA launch and reentry licenses, which must include full enforcement of agency regulations and civil penalties."
Three previous Starship prototypes exploded in massive fireballs that sent smoke billowing into the air. In December, SN8 crash landed in what Musk called an "awesome test." But that touched off the tussle with the FAA.
After the FAA approved SpaceX's remedies, it granted the company approval to launch again. That flight, of Starship SN9, also hit hard and exploded.
Still, it was another great flight," Insprucker, SpaceX's principal integration engineer, said during a broadcast of the event. But, he added, "we need to work on that landing a little bit."
A month later, SpaceX was at it again, this time with SN10. This time, it reached its apogee, or highest point, of about six miles, shut off its engines and fell gracefully in a "belly flop" or horizontal position. Then, shortly before reaching the ground, it flipped back to vertical and fired its engines. It landed, bounced, but appeared to stick the landing - at least for a while.
"Third time's a charm, as the saying goes," Insprucker said on the broadcast. "A beautiful soft landing on the landing pad.
But the vehicle was visibly leaning and after a little more than eight minutes, it exploded.
After all of the explosions, the FAA, which is charged with promoting the space industry but also protecting people and property on the ground, oversaw investigations with SpaceX.
The investigation into the SN10 "mishap," as the FAA calls it, remains open, the agency said Friday. But it found "no safety concerns in the preliminary SN10 mishap report that would preclude further launches," so SpaceX was cleared to proceed with the flight test Friday.
As the commercial space industry grows and embraces a culture of testing to failure and then iterating quickly to remedy errors, the FAA has been busy. So far, it has investigated six mishaps this fiscal year, Dickson said this week. That includes the Starship crashes, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that missed its landing site on an autonomous boat in the ocean, as well as an aborted flight from Virgin Galactic and a launch in Alaska by start-up space company Astra that just missed making orbit in December.
Some of the mishaps "ended in spectacular fireballs and went viral on social media," Dickson said. "But all six of these were successful failures because we were able to protect public safety."