The third time appeared to be the charm for Elon Musk’s Starship prototype rocket, until it wasn’t.
The rocket soared into the sky in a high-altitude test on Wednesday from Boca Chica in Texas, then flew itself back to Earth and manoeuvred into its first – successful – upright landing.
But the triumph was short-lived.
“A beautiful soft landing,” a SpaceX commentator said during a live broadcast of the test flight, as an automated fire-suppression system trained a stream of water on flames still burning at the base of the rocket.
About eight minutes later it blew itself to pieces, lurching into the air and crashing back to the ground.
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There was no immediate explanation for what went wrong.
SN10 was the third Starship to be destroyed in a fireball although it came far closer to achieving a safe, vertical touchdown than two previous models – SN8 in December and SN9 in February. The rocket is being developed by SpaceX to carry people and cargo on future missions to the Moon and Mars.
For Elon Musk, the billionaire SpaceX founder who also heads the electric carmaker, Tesla, the outcome was mixed news.
In a tweet responding to tempered congratulations from an admirer of his work, Musk replied, “RIP SN10, honorable discharge.”
The video feed provided by SpaceX on the company’s YouTube channel cut off moments after the landing. But separate fan feeds streamed over the same social media platform showed an explosion suddenly erupting at the base of the rocket, hurling the SN10 into the air before it crashed to the ground and became engulfed in flames.
The complete Starship rocket, which will stand 394-feet (120 metres) tall when connected with its super-heavy first-stage booster, is SpaceX’s next-generation fully reusable launch vehicle – the centre of Musk’s ambitions to make human space travel more affordable and routine.
The first orbital Starship flight is planned for year’s end.
On Wednesday, Japanese billionaire and online fashion tycoon Yusaku Maezawa, who paid an undisclosed sum for a SpaceX lunar spaceship trip, invited eight people from around the world to join him.
The Starship tests take place in a nearly deserted area leased by SpaceX in southern Texas near the border with Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico.