The hulking rocket didn’t have anyone onboard. It was an early developmental model of Starship, a 160-foot-tall spaceship proposed by Musk that he hopes will be used for hauling massive satellites into Earth’s orbit, shuttling people between cities at breakneck speeds and — eventually — establishing a human settlement on Mars.
The test flight marked the highest test flight yet of the technology Musk hopes will one day ferry the first humans to go to Mars, and a fiery ending was not totally unexpected. Musk attempted to dampen expectations before the flight, saying in one tweet that he predicted the “SN8” vehicle, the name for the Starship prototype used Wednesday, had a one-in-three chance of landing safely back on Earth.
The SN8 did manage to maneuver back to its landing target, but Musk said via Twitter that an issue with the rocket’s fuel system caused it to make a crash landing. Green and yellow flames engulfed the landing site, which lies just outsides the small coastal town of Boca Chica, Texas.
SpaceX and Musk are known to embrace mishaps during the early stages of new spacefaring technology development. The company’s ethos is to move quickly and learn from errors, rather than taking the more NASA-esque approach of slowly conducting thorough research and ground tests before putting a rocket on a launch pad.
Several previous Starship prototypes were destroyed during pressure tests, which are designed to check whether a vehicle can withstand the enormous pressure it undergoes during fueling and in flight.
SpaceX had previously tried twice this week to launch the test flight, but both of the first attempts were halted with just moments left on the countdown clock.
It was not clear why SpaceX halted the launches, though last-minute scrubs are not uncommon even during routine rocket launches. Computers or flight controllers may have caught an abnormal reading about the rocket’s health and stopped the engines from igniting.
Previous test flights of Starship prototypes have traveled less than about 500 feet in the air and made use of only one engine. The vehicle that will be used on SpaceX’s next Starship test flight, called SN8, will be the first to have three engines installed. And it will be by far the highest and riskiest Starship test flight yet.
It’s not clear why the company decided to lower its target altitude of this test flight, though 40,000 and 60,000 feet are still well below the 62-mile mark, which is widely considered to mark the edge of outer space.
The SN8 rocket wouldn’t be able to reach Earth’s orbit on its own anyway. The final Starship design will need six rocket engines, and even then the vehicle will require a separate, hulking rocket booster, dubbed the Super Heavy, to blast the spacecraft into orbit because that trip will require it to travel at speeds topping 17,000 miles per hour. It’s not yet clear if the company has started development or testing of the Super Heavy booster.
For a journey to Mars, Starship will also eventually need to reach “escape velocity” — about 25,000 miles per hour — which is the speed required to rip a spacecraft away from Earth’s gravitational pull, allowing it to travel into more distant regions of our solar system.
Musk founded SpaceX around his interplanetary travel ambitions, claiming he wanted to develop the technology to allow humans to settle the Red Planet.