SpaceX’s prototype for a Starship meant for trips to the moon and Mars suffered an eruption today on its South Texas launch pad, putting a dent in SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s ambitious schedule for flight tests.
Clouds of vapor issued explosively from the 165-foot-tall rocket’s top during a pressurization test, apparently because of a rupture in one of the craft’s cryogenic propellant tanks. The Starship Mk1’s top bulkhead was blown away by the blast.
— Chris B – NSF (@NASASpaceflight) November 20, 2019
The Starship Mk1 was being prepared at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch facility for its first flight test, which was expected to reach an altitude of 12 miles (20 kilometers). That test was meant to follow up on previous “hops” by a smaller prototype, dubbed Starhopper, that rose no higher than 500 feet (150 meters).
In a Twitter exchange, Musk said SpaceX wouldn’t try repairing the Mk1 prototype, but would instead move on to building a Mk3 test vehicle that’s closer to the design for operational Starships:
Starship MK-1 appears to have blown its top off during a pressure test today. My guess… this will be a good time for @spacex to move onto their next, more refined and higher quality versions (MK-2/3) instead of reparing MK-1. @elonmusk, any chance you’ll just move onto MK-3?
— Everyday Astronaut (@Erdayastronaut) November 20, 2019
Absolutely, but to move to Mk3 design. This had some value as a manufacturing pathfinder, but flight design is quite different.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 20, 2019
“The purpose of today’s test was to pressurize systems to the max, so the outcome was not completely unexpected. … The decision had already been made to not fly this test article and the team is focused on the Mk3 builds, which are designed for orbit,” SpaceX said in a statement.
A Starship Mk2 prototype has been taking shape at SpaceX’s Florida facilities, but the time frame for testing that prototype — or reworking it in line with the Mk3 design — isn’t yet clear.
SpaceX said today’s incident caused no injuries and was not a serious setback. Nevertheless, it’s likely to complicate his original timetable for Starship testing.
When the Mk1 had its official unveiling in September, Musk said he expected the 12-mile-high test flight to take place within a month or two. Musk’s schedule called for conducting the first crewed orbital mission as early as next year.
Just this week, NASA announced that the finished version of Starship would be on its list of candidates for cargo missions to the moon.
SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said Starship could take on such missions by 2022 — and take Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa on a trip around the moon and back in 2023.
Last month, Shotwell hinted that Starship could carry crews on flights to the lunar surface by 2024, which is in line with the timeline for NASA’s Artemis program. 2024 also SpaceX’s rough time frame for beginning trips to Mars.