A prototype using next-generation propulsion technology being developed by SpaceX for its planned heavy lift Starship rocket exploded in a towering fireball two minutes after a brief engine test firing on the Texas Gulf Coast Friday, destroying the test vehicle and its firing stand.
The incident came on the eve of launch for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule from the Kennedy Space Center Saturday carrying two astronauts on a historic test flight to the International Space Station.
The Texas mishap is not expected to have any impact on launch plans for the astronauts Saturday — their Falcon 9 does not share any common technology with the heavy lift rocket. But it will no doubt delay SpaceX’s Starship development schedule.
SpaceX is developing the Starship for eventual piloted and cargo-carrying flights to the moon and, eventually, Mars. The rocket as currently envisioned will be made up of a “super-heavy” first stage and a second stage that would carry crew, passengers and cargo.
SpaceX has been in the process of testing the planned second stage propellant tanks and the Raptor engine technology that will be used to propel the Starship into Earth orbit and beyond.
Three prototypes were destroyed during earlier pressure tests using liquid nitrogen. Company engineers installed a single methane-fueled Raptor engine and began carrying out brief test firings with Starship prototype No. 4 at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, facility.
A static firing earlier this week appeared to go off without a hitch and on Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration approved a license for SpaceX to launch the “Starship prototype” as early as next week on an up-and-down test flight to an expected altitude of up to 26,000 feet.
In Friday’s test, the Raptor ignited around 2:47 p.m., fired for a few seconds and then shut down after a presumably normal “hot fire.” Then, two minutes later, white vapor could be seen engulfing the base of the vehicle before it suddenly exploded in a tremendous fireball of burning propellant.
Debris could be seen arcing away and when the flames finally died down, the prototype had been destroyed and its firing stand left in smoking ruin.
As with any such test firings, all personnel leave the area well in advance of engine ignition and there were no reports of any injuries.