A prototype of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship exploded into a fireball during an engine test on Friday at the company’s launch facilities in Boca Raton, Texas.
The blast comes only a day before SpaceX is poised to make history with its first-ever launch of astronauts to the International Space Station, which is currently scheduled for Saturday afternoon. Thankfully, this test vehicle, known as Starship SN4, is a completely different spacecraft from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which will be carrying astronauts to the ISS this weekend.
The Starship accident has no direct bearing on the historic “Launch America” event, scheduled for this weekend, weather permitting. The Crew Dragon has been heavily tested and vetted for years, and robotic uncrewed versions of it have visited the station nearly 20 times.
The SN4, in contrast, is the latest prototype of SpaceX’s ambitious and highly experimental Starship concept. The final version of Starship, as envisioned by the company, is a massive reusable spacecraft that could ultimately transport 100 passengers to Earth orbit, or to more distant destinations such as the Moon and Mars. SpaceX is a long way from turning its Starship dreams into a reality, and the SN4 test vehicle was designed to test out only a few of the basic technologies needed for the mission.
As the name implies, SN4 was the fourth prototype in a series of test vehicles that have been rolled out at the Texas facility for testing, and it is not the first to explode. The cause of the SN4’s detonation is currently unclear, but it occurred during a static firing of SpaceX’s Raptor engine.
The FAA had cleared SpaceX to conduct low-altitude test flights of the Raptor-powered SN4 on Thursday, but it doesn’t look like that poor burned crisp of a prototype will ever take to the air now.