Welp, SpaceX's Starship Prototype Just Blew Up

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Photo credit: NASASpaceFlight.com
Photo credit: NASASpaceFlight.com

From Popular Mechanics

  • SpaceX's Starship prototype, SN4, erupted in a ball of flames at the company's testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

  • The test vehicle had just completed its fifth static fire test.

  • On Thursday, SpaceX received FAA clearance to conduct a 150 m hop with the vehicle. Those plans are, obviously, now up in the air.

At 1:49 p.m. EDT, SpaceX's Starship prototype vehicle, SN4, exploded in a ball of flames on the company's testing facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The test vehicle, a prototype for Elon Musk's moon- and Mars-bound spacecraft, had just conducted its fifth static fire test two minutes earlier.

NASASpaceFlight.com correspondent @BocaChicaGal caught the static fire and subsequent explosion on film. You can watch the entire live stream of the test below.

This video from NASASpaceFlight.com skips right to the explosion and includes the sounds generated by the blast. (It's quite a boom!)

SN4 is a prototype for the company's Starship rocket, which SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk hopes will ferry astronauts to the moon and Mars in the near future.

The static fire test, in which the engine fires while the rocket is strapped to the ground, seemed to go off without a hitch. SN4 had gone through four previous static fire tests, including one yesterday. This was the third test for vehicle's Raptor 20 engine. The first two static fire tests featured the company's Raptor 18 engine.

And then, two minutes later, a ball of flames erupted around the vehicle. The force of the explosion sent debris flying through the air. There's no official word from SpaceX on what exactly went wrong, or whether anyone was injured in the blast.

SpaceX had just received clearance from the FAA to conduct suborbital flight tests with the Starship prototype. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation posted the license to its website on May 28. Multiple reports suggested the tests could have been conducted as early as June 1. The FAA placed a temporary flight restriction on the airspace above the Boca Chica facility for between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. EDT on Monday.

Needless to say, those plans are now on hold.

As they say, rocketry is hard. SpaceX lost its MK1, SN1 and SN3 test vehicles to tank pressurization tests. (The partially assembled SN2, meanwhile, passed its cryo test.) SN4 passed its tank pressurization test on April 27 and became the first full-sized prototype to make it past the static fire stage of testing. Fortunately, the company has another prototype, SN5, waiting in the wings for its own round of testing.

This is an entirely separate program from SpaceX's Commercial Crew Program, which will—depending on the weather—send NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the ISS aboard the company's Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule tomorrow afternoon. Still, it's not a good look for Musk and the gang.

Update May 29 11:43 p.m.:
We've updated the article to include an embedded version of NASASpaceFlight.com's video.

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