SpaceX sticks landing of Starship prototype, but then it explodes

By Richard Tribou
Orlando Sentinel/TNS
This photo from Feb. 1, 2021 shows the work that continued at the SpaceX launch site as delays from the FAA on the launch of SN9 and SN10 in Boca Chica, Texas. The company launched its SN10, as in serial number 10, version of its next-generation rocket on Wednesday evening.

SpaceX finally got its latest Starship prototype to land without blowing up. Well at least for a little bit.

“Starship SN10 landed in one piece!” said company founder and CEO Elon Musk on his Twitter account.

The company launched its SN10, as in serial number 10, version of its next-generation rocket from its Boca Chica, Texas, facility on Wednesday evening on a successful 10 km flight that finished with the rocket hitting its target landing pad without suffering the catastrophic fireball that beset the two previous Starship prototype flights.

“Third time’s the charm as the saying goes,” said SpaceX commentator John Insprucker from live stream of the launch that lasted about six and a half minutes.

But then after the landing, the test rocket exploded after all.

While there was no word from SpaceX about the reason for the post-landing explosion, Musk remained congratulatory of the flight.

“RIP SN10, honorable discharge,” he posted. “SpaceX team is doing great work! One day, the true measure of success will be that Starship flights are commonplace.”

The rocket lifted off using three of the company’s Raptor engines, shutting each one off in succession as it reached its target altitude, then turned onto its belly for a horizontal descent controlled by two forward and two aft flaps, all run by an on-board computer.

The SN10 performed these maneuvers just as well as the SN9 and SN8 rockets, but excelled at the landing where the two previous ended up exploding during their December 2020 and February 2021 flights.

The company will continue with its prototype series of tests with SN11 soon to line up for its own flight.

Plans are for SpaceX to continue proving out flight ability for Starship with higher altitudes, and eventually orbital test flights. The tests follow a similar method it used when developing its Falcon rockets. Starship is the company’s eventual replacement for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

The Starship design is meant to be used for both suborbital point-to-point flights on Earth and for deep-space missions such as to the moon and Mars. The full version will feature six Raptor engines, stand about 165 feet tall and have a 100-passenger capacity. The large version of Starship would be coupled with a Super Heavy booster with 37 Raptor engines combined for Mars colonization plans.