A SpaceX rocket prototype burst into flames while landing. Nevertheless it was a success

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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SpaceX SN8 Image
SpaceX's SN8 soared 8 miles from the ground during its test flight

A giant experimental rocket designed by Elon Musk-owned SpaceX successfully soared eight miles above the testing facilities of the company in the US and returned as expected before crashing into the ground in a massive plume of flames and smoke.

The giant rocket had no one on board. It was an early experimental model of Starship, Musk’s 160-foot-tall spacecraft, which he hopes would be used to transport huge satellites into Earth’s orbit, shuttle people at breakneck speeds between cities, and ultimately set up a human colony on Mars.

The test flight marked the highest test flight of the technology yet while Mr. Musk hopes that would it would ferry the first humans to Mars one day and a fiery ending was not entirely unexpected. Before the flight, Mr. Musk tried to dampen expectations, saying in one tweet that he predicted the “SN8” spacecraft, the name for the prototype Starship, had a one-in-three chance of safely landing back on Earth.

The SN8 managed to navigate back to its landing target, but via Twitter, Mr. Musk said that a problem with the fuel system of the rocket caused it to land in a crash. The landing site, which is just outside Texas, was engulfed by green and yellow flames.

Learn from mistakes

In the early stages of new spacefaring technology growth, SpaceX and Mr. Musk are known to embrace mishaps. Instead of following the more NASA’s method of cautiously performing comprehensive testing and ground tests before placing a rocket on a launch pad, the company’s strategy is to move fast and learn from mistakes.

During pressure tests, several previous Starship designs were destroyed, which are designed to verify whether a spacecraft can withstand the tremendous pressure it encounters during fueling and in flight.

The company is quite a long way from building an operating Starship spacecraft. So far, several prototypes have been developed that have been used to test how well their steel frames perform under pressure and to perform suborbital “hop tests.” Musk said the technique is necessary for the vehicles to be retrieved and reused, as well as for a controlled landing on the Moon or Mars one day.

Mars settlement

Mr. Musk founded SpaceX around his interplanetary travel ambitions, claiming he wanted to develop the technology to allow humans to settle the Red Planet.

The proposals for a Mars settlement by SpaceX pose various technical, political and ethical concerns. For example, it is not clear whether Mr. Musk intends to collaborate with Earth governments to develop a space colony, or whether Musk intends to create a sovereign nation that could breach established international treaties regulating human outer space actions. One of the most daunting challenges can also be financial: Musk has not even ventured to guess an all-in cost estimate.

But Starship could have plenty of other practical purposes closer to home. The spacecraft could be capable of hauling massive satellites or research telescopes into Earth’s orbit, resupplying the International Space Station (ISS), or, perhaps, shuttling people between cities at unprecedented speeds. In a September 2017 presentation, SpaceX said Starship could be “capable of taking people from any city to any other city on Earth in under one hour.”