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Four minutes into SpaceX's new Starship test flight, it tumbled and exploded

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

A test of the world's most powerful rocket has ended with a bang, also cheering.

(APPLAUSE)

DETROW: No one was on board SpaceX's Starship as it made its first launch from Boca Chica, Texas, this morning. And that is important because it exploded about four minutes after takeoff. Despite blowing up, SpaceX is calling the test to win. From member station WMFE, Brendan Byrne is here to explain. So, Brendan, what do we know about the launch failure today?

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: Well, Scott, first I think we need to get a sense of just how big this rocket is. So Starship and its superheavy booster are 400 feet tall and carry something like 10 million pounds of propellant. And it's heavy. It's made out of stainless steel. So this booster uses 33 engines, all firing in unison, to give the vehicle a big lift off the pad and hopefully into orbit. Well, this morning, the rocket did leave the pad with twice as much thrust as - that was used for the Saturn V launches that sent humans to the moon a half-century...

DETROW: Wow.

BYRNE: ...Ago. But about - yeah, it's a lot. And about three minutes after liftoff, we could see the entire vehicle start to tumble. And by four minutes, it exploded in what SpaceX engineers call a rapid, unplanned disassembly.

DETROW: (Laughter).

BYRNE: SpaceX says multiple engines went out during flight, and the rocket's flight termination was activated. And the rocket essentially self-destructed. Here's SpaceX's John Insprucker.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN INSPRUCKER: But now, this was a development test. This is the first test flight of Starship. And the goal was to gather the data and, as we said, clear the pad and get ready to go again. So you never know exactly what's going to happen. But as we promised, excitement is guaranteed.

DETROW: First of all, I just want to say rapid, unplanned disassembly should be in the Hall of Fame of PR.

BYRNE: Just be a term, right (laughter)?

DETROW: But, you know, let's talk about this, though. SpaceX is saying this really was a success. We heard the employees cheering. Explain to us how a rocket exploding is a good thing.

BYRNE: Yeah. As strange as it sounds, Scott, this is the way SpaceX operates, right? It pushes its hardware to the limit - explosions even - and takes those lessons learned to the next version of the spacecraft. So ahead of this launch, SpaceX tempered those expectations and said, as long as Starship left the pad, this would be a win. Space policy analyst Laura Forczyk is calling this mission a successful failure and that it really exemplifies SpaceX's design process - develop rapidly, push hardware to the limits and learn from when things inevitably go boom.

LAURA FORCZYK: Each accident, each anomaly gives them further data as to what to improve so that when they finally have payloads on board, when they finally have astronauts on board, they are going to have a successful launch and landing.

BYRNE: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says there is another booster waiting in the wings, a newer design that will hopefully be more successful, another Starship ready to go for another test launch in just the next few months.

DETROW: That's pretty fast. What's the rush?

BYRNE: Yeah. So SpaceX has plans for Starship. It's set to launch the company's Starlink satellites. These are the thousands that will circle the globe with internet access, key to SpaceX's revenue. And NASA has contracted SpaceX to use the Starship as a landing system to bring astronauts to the moon. So the agency is working on returning to the moon with astronauts this decade, and Starship is key to that happening.

DETROW: About 30 seconds left. Tell us what else SpaceX will be doing.

BYRNE: So they'll be reviewing the data from what we could see this morning and what was reported from SpaceX. Some of those engines failed to ignite or went out mid-flight. Engineers are going to get to the bottom of it. We saw a lot of reports of debris. So they'll be checking the launch pad. But despite the explosion, NASA's administrator, Bill Nelson, congratulated SpaceX on the test flight and says he's looking forward to the next one.

DETROW: That is Brendan Byrne from WMFE. Brendan, thank you so much for joining us.

BYRNE: Any time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brendan Byrne
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