SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded on Thursday, minutes after lifting off from a launchpad in South Texas. The rocket, the most powerful ever built, did not reach orbit but provided important lessons for the private spaceflight company as it worked toward a more successful mission.
This test flight was a small step in a grand project. Before Starship can complete its first grand mission or host astronauts, SpaceX has significant technological questions to hash out.
NASA tapped SpaceX’s Starship to serve as a lunar lander, ferrying astronauts from a separate spacecraft down to the lunar surface for the Artemis III mission, which is currently scheduled for as early as 2025. Before that mission can take off, however, SpaceX has to prove that Starship can make it to the moon.
The sheer mass of the vehicle will force the company to refuel the spacecraft while it’s still in Earth’s orbit. More than a dozen launches — carrying nothing but propellant — may be required to give a single Starship lunar lander enough fuel to traverse the 238,900-mile (384,500-kilometer) void between the Earth and the moon.
When SpaceX began building Starship, it was motivated by Musk’s dream of sending people to live on Mars someday, an endeavor that would require the transport of enormous amounts of supplies to succeed.
But entrepreneurs and futurists are thinking closer to home. A gargantuan, fully reusable vehicle would slash the cost of sending things to space, leading some to imagine how Starship could carry mammoth space telescopes to peer at the cosmos, or squadrons of robots to explore other worlds. Others are designing larger satellites that will be cheaper because they will not have to use expensive components currently needed to fit into the size and weight constraints imposed by present-day rockets.