SpaceX mega rocket lost in final phase of test flight after prior explosions

Boca Chica, Texas - Starship, the world's most powerful rocket, flew further and faster than ever before during its third test flight Thursday, although it was eventually lost as it re-entered the atmosphere over the Indian Ocean, SpaceX said.

SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket is prepared for a third launch from the company's Boca Chica, Texas, launchpad.
SpaceX's next-generation Starship spacecraft atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket is prepared for a third launch from the company's Boca Chica, Texas, launchpad.  © REUTERS

Lift-off from the company's Starbase in southeast Texas came around 8:25 AM local time and was carried live on a webcast that was eventually watched by more than 3.5 million people on social media platform X.

The sleek mega rocket is vital to NASA's plans for landing astronauts on the Moon later this decade – and Elon Musk's hopes of eventually colonizing Mars.

Two prior attempts have ended in spectacular explosions. The company has adopted a rapid trial-and-error approach in order to accelerate development.

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When the two stages of Starship are combined, the rocket stands 397 feet tall – beating the Statue of Liberty by a comfortable 90 feet.

Its Super Heavy Booster produces 16.7 million pounds of thrust, almost double that of the world's second most powerful rocket, NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) – though the latter is now certified, while Starship is still a prototype.

Elon Musk boasts of Starship's potential

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has described Starship as the vehicle to "make life multiplanetary."
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has described Starship as the vehicle to "make life multiplanetary."  © REUTERS

Starship's third launch test in its fully stacked configuration was its most ambitious yet, and the company said it was able to meet many of its objectives.

These included opening and closing Starship's payload door to test its ability to deliver satellites and other cargo into space.

High-definition footage from an onboard camera showed Starship firing its engines in space, with the curve of the Earth visible in the background. It hit a top speed of more than 16,000 miles per hour and achieved a peak altitude of 145 miles.

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Starship flew halfway around the globe, then began its descent phase over the Indian Ocean, with engineers cheering as the craft's heat shield composed of 18,000 hexagonal tiles glowed red hot.

But ground control stopped receiving signals when it was around 40 miles above sea level, and announcers declared the vessel "lost" before it could achieve its final goal of splashing down in the water.

"Starship will make life multiplanetary," Musk, the company's billionaire founder, posted on X afterward.

Third time lucky?

A family from Colorado sun bathes as SpaceX's Starship spacecraft is prepared for a third launch.
A family from Colorado sun bathes as SpaceX's Starship spacecraft is prepared for a third launch.  © REUTERS

The first so-called "integrated" test came in April 2023. SpaceX was forced to blow up Starship within a few minutes of launch, because the two stages failed to separate.

The rocket disintegrated into a ball of fire and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico, sending a dust cloud over a town several miles away.

The second test in November 2023 fared slightly better: The booster separated from the spaceship, but both then exploded over the ocean, in what the company euphemistically called a "rapid unscheduled disassembly."

SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets have come to be workhorses for NASA and the commercial sector, its Dragon capsule sends astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, and its Starlink internet satellite constellation now covers dozens of countries.

But the clock is ticking for SpaceX to be ready for NASA's planned return of astronauts to the Moon in 2026, using a modified Starship as the lander vehicle.

China is approaching in the rear view mirror, targeting 2030 to land its first crew on the Moon.

Not only does SpaceX need to prove it can launch, fly, and land Starship safely – it must eventually also show it can send multiple "Starship tankers" into orbit to refuel a main Starship for its onward journey to the Moon.

Cover photo: REUTERS

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