Words by Gaige Davila
Photos b Patricia M. McGrath
Seven minutes have changed the course of space travel forever.
SpaceX’s Starship SN8 prototype spacecraft successfully launched from the aerospace firm’s Boca Chica facility on Wednesday afternoon, with a total flight time of six minutes and forty-two seconds. After climbing to an altitude of 8 miles, SN8’s three Raptor (powered by liquid methane and oxygen) engines stopped, causing the prototype spacecraft to drop horizontally through the sky. The Raptor engines reignited to bring SN8 upright, nearly landing intact before exploding.
“Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high and (the rapid unscheduled disassembly), but we got all the data we needed,” Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX posted on his Twitter account. “Mars, here we come!”
The highly anticipated launch was initially scheduled on Tuesday, Dec. 8, afternoon, but with a second to spare, one of the three Raptor engines auto-aborted, stopping the spacecraft at 4:35 p.m.
Crowds of people gathered at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island where SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility could be seen in the distance. Once the launch aborted, droves of cars began leaving the Island. But on Wednesday, they stayed put, watching the launch, descent and explosion.
According to flight data, two NASA planes flew over the Texas gulf coast just before the Starship’s scheduled launch on Tuesday, with another NASA airplane buzzing the Island on Wednesday. Musk said in a Twitter post that Starship had a “maybe ⅓ chance” of landing intact after its launch.
According to SpaceX’s website, Starship is designed to travel to Mars. SN8 is one of ten prototypes, with SN9 expected to be revealed soon, according to SpaceX.
“This suborbital flight is designed to test a number of objectives, from how the vehicle’s three Raptor engines perform to the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities of the vehicle (including its body flaps) to how the vehicle manages propellant transition,” SpaceX’s website states about Starship. “SN8 will also attempt to perform a landing flip maneuver, which would be a first for a vehicle of this size.”
Just two days prior to Starship’s attempted launch, SpaceX’s Dragon cargo spacecraft launched from Kennedy Space Center and docked at the International Space Station.
Last August, SpaceX successfully launched its Starhopper prototype from the Boca Chica facility, sending the spacecraft 490 feet into the air, landing without incident.
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