SpaceX launches Starship on highest test flight, crash-lands

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In this screen grab from video posted by SpaceX, the company's Starship launches for a test flight, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in a remote area of Texas. (SpaceX via AP)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX launched its shiny, bullet-shaped, straight-out-of-science fiction Starship several miles into the air from a remote corner of Texas on Wednesday, but the 6 1/2-minute test flight ended in an explosive fireball at touchdown.

It was the highest and most elaborate flight yet for the rocketship that Elon Musk says could carry people to Mars in as little as six years. Despite the catastrophic finale, he was thrilled.

“Mars, here we come!!” he tweeted.

This latest prototype — the first one equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines — was shooting for an altitude of up to eight miles (12.5 kilometers). That’s almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere.

Starship seemed to hit the mark or at least come close. There was no immediate word from SpaceX on how high it went.

The full-scale, stainless steel model — 160 feet (50 meters) tall and 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter — soared out over the Gulf of Mexico. After about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border. The Raptor engines reignited for braking and the rocket tilted back upright. When it touched down, however, the rocketship became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering.

The entire flight — as dramatic and flashy as it gets, even by SpaceX standards — lasted six minutes and 42 seconds. SpaceX broadcast the sunset demo live on its website; repeated delays over the past week and a last-second engine abort Tuesday heightened the excitement among space fans.

Musk called it a “successful ascent” and said the body flaps precisely guided the rocket to the landing point. The fuel tank pressure was low, however, when the engines reignited for touchdown, which caused Starship to come down too fast.