SpaceX Rocket Designed to Take Humans to Mars Explodes During Test Flight

Despite the rough landing, Elon Musk is hailing the almost seven-minute test a success.
December 10, 2020, 1:04am
This SpaceX video frame grab image shows SpaceX's Starship SN8 rocket prototype crashing on landing at the company's Boca Chica, Texas facility during an attempted high-altitude launch test on December 9, 2020. Via AFP / SPACEX

The latest prototype of SpaceX’s Starship rocket, which Elon Musk says could carry people to Mars in as little as six years, exploded during a test flight landing on Wednesday.

The unmanned rocketship—the first one equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines—began a high-altitude flight in South Texas at about 4:45PM, soaring 13 kilometres above SpaceX’s testing facilities before dropping back down to Earth and erupting into a giant ball of flame.


Despite these setbacks, Musk is celebrating the test flight as a major success.

“Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!” the SpaceX CEO tweeted in the moments after the crash. “Fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!”

Shortly thereafter, Musk tweeted: “Mars here we come!”

The Starship SN8 rocket, a prototype of a 49-metre high spaceship that Musk plans to use in shuttling people between cities and eventually establishing a human colony on Mars, was aiming for an altitude of up to 12.5 kilometres—almost 100 times higher than previous attempts. This test flight surpassed that target by half-a-kilometre.

The entire flight lasted six minutes and 42 seconds. Here’s the whole video:

Starship’s two previous test flights, conducted earlier this year and using more rudimentary versions of the rocket, reached a maximum altitude of just 150 metres. Earlier this week, two SpaceX aborted two separate attempts to launch the test flight with just minutes left on the countdown clock. The company gave no reason for those cancellations.

Despite the technical misfires and speed bumps, however, Musk is confident of landing a manned flight on the red planet within the next decade.

“I’d say six years from now, [I’m] highly confident [that humans will travel to Mars],” he said at an award ceremony in Germany earlier this year. “If we get lucky, maybe four years.”

The Starship rocket needs to be able to launch and land upright to allow for successful interplanetary voyages.

Follow Gavin on Twitter