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SpaceX rocket explodes shortly after test-flight takeoff in Texas

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

They say what goes up must come down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Five, four, three...

(SOUNDBITE OF ROCKET LAUNCHING)

MARTÍNEZ: A SpaceX rocket with no one on board successfully blasted off this morning in Boca Chica, Texas. Here is what happened next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: The entire Starship stack continued to rotate. We should have had separation by now. Obviously, this is - does not appear to be a nominal situation.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Minutes into its flight, SpaceX's megarocket Starship blew up. From member station WMFE, Brendan Byrne joins us to talk about the launch failure and what's next for SpaceX's Starship. Brendan, OK, so what happened this morning in Texas?

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: So let's reiterate. No one was on board, and there was actually no payload on board because this was a test flight. And SpaceX said this morning that if the rocket cleared the launch pad, it would be an important milestone in itself. And, A, it did do just that. It successfully left the pad. But as you mentioned, three minutes after launch, it began to tumble. And about four minutes into the mission, we saw it blew up - that was about 18 miles in altitude - in something SpaceX termed a rapid, unscheduled disassembly of the rocket.

So it was the second attempt to launch SpaceX's Starship, which is no easy feat. This vehicle is made of stainless steel, which is very cheap, but it is very, very heavy. And that means this rocket needs a lot of thrust to fly. Starship gets a big lift from its first-stage super-heavy booster, which has 33 engines that all work in unison to get this 40-story-tall vehicle off the ground with twice the thrust of the Saturn V rocket. That's the rocket that got the Apollo astronauts to the moon. And it's still early, but we noticed that as the rocket launched, not all of those 33 engines were firing at the same time. So that could have led to this rapid, unscheduled disassembly.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Still dwelling on what you said - rapid, unscheduled disassembly. So why does SpaceX need such a powerful rocket?

BYRNE: Well, A, in the short term, it's for moon missions. NASA, the space agency, has an ambitious plan to land humans on the moon this decade. The program is called Artemis, and it's contracted SpaceX to build that lander. That lander is Starship. So it needs to prove that this thing can get orbital and then eventually take humans to the moon. For SpaceX, it's using Starship for Starlink. This is the thousands of satellites that are blanketing the globe to provide internet access. Starlink is big revenue for SpaceX, and Starship is going to put a lot of these into orbit at one time. There's also a fly-by moon mission called dearMoon, which is taking artists and creators to the moon and back on Starship. And eventually, SpaceX wants to use Starship to take people to Mars.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you mention how despite the launch failure, SpaceX is still considering this a successful mission. So how does this play out for the company?

BYRNE: Yeah. So in a tweet, the company said, quote, "with a test like this, success comes from what we learn. And today's test will help us improve Starship's reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary." And basically, it reiterates SpaceX's philosophy. They design based on failure. They push their hardware to the limit to the point of blowing things up, and they learn what they can from this. Ahead of the mission, SpaceX said any data they get from this will help with future launches, as long as they cleared the pad they were learning, which they did today.

And CEO Elon Musk tempered those expectations ahead of this mission, saying super-heavy booster was an older design and that the next booster, which is almost ready for launch, has a better chance of flight. But as I mentioned, this is a key piece of NASA's plan to get to the moon. The agency is watching closely, and this is a setback in those ambitions.

MARTÍNEZ: Brendan Byrne is a reporter at member station WMFE in Orlando. Brendan, you may disassemble for the morning.

BYRNE: Thank you, A (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF HOME'S "RESONANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Brendan Byrne
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