SpaceX will attempt a second test flight of the world’s largest rocket on Saturday, with expectations high for a big show after the April launch, when the spacecraft pulverized the launch pad during liftoff and then exploded in altitude.
The 120-meter Starship rocket system, the most powerful ever built, was scheduled to launch from Texas on Friday, but that was delayed until the weekend after teams found a component needed to be replaced.
SpaceX, which also operates smaller rockets to launch satellites as well as manned space missions to the International Space Station, this week won approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the test to continue. Concerns were raised locally after debris was scattered over a wide area during the launch in April.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk hopes Starship will be the first step in a human journey to Mars, with the system’s cruise ship designed to eventually carry up to 100 astronauts. Almost as long as three airliners, this gigantic spacecraft is 10 meters longer than the Saturn V rocket that sent humans to the Moon in 1969.
Unlike NASA, which generally tries to avoid risks, SpaceX has a history of showing a willingness to blow up test flights, with Musk saying the private company benefits from understanding what’s wrong.
SpaceX jokingly called the April explosion a “rapid and unplanned teardown” and said the flight, which lasted four minutes, provided vital information on how to improve.
For the second test, the rocket benefited from several improvements, including a new heat shield installed on the booster, the lower part of the system that provides the thrust of 33 Raptor engines to get the rocket off the ground before detaching it from the cruise ship. At the April launch, this separation was not successful.
On the launch pad, transformed into a crater during the first test when the thrusters pulverized the concrete, a new water-cooled steel flame deflector has been installed.
The upper and lower segments of the system are designed to return safely to Earth for a soft landing so they can be reused, which is significantly cheaper than building entirely new parts.
Musk said he developed Starship, formerly named BFR (meaning “big fucking rocket”), so that humans could eventually become a “multi-planetary species.” To do this, he intends to begin the colonization of Mars, which he believes is necessary to preserve humanity in the event of a planet-destroying event on Earth, such as an asteroid strike or a deadly pandemic.
SpaceX says Starship, which has a payload capacity of up to 150 tons, will be capable of carrying dozens of people on long-duration interplanetary flights. NASA has contracted SpaceX land astronauts, including the first woman, on the Moon by 2025. This date is considered ambitious.
The company announced its longer-term plan to use the spacecraft as a shuttle for commercial travel on Earth, promising trips from London to Tokyo in less than an hour.
SpaceX has built its own spaceport, named Starbase, on the Gulf of Mexico in Boca Chica, Texas, from where it will launch its rockets. Several other ship systems are already in production for future testing.