SpaceX tried to launch and land the 160ft-tall stainless steel rocket at is prototype facility in Boca Chica, South Texas, on Tuesday. After clearing the launchpad and evacuating the residents of Boca Chica Village, Starship Serial Number 9 (SN9) roared to life just after 8.25pm GMT (2.25pm CST), powered by its three Raptor engines. And although the first few minutes went smoothly for the Elon Musk firm, Starship seemingly had a change of mind and followed in the footsteps of Starship SN8 last December.
The previous iteration of Starship was blown to smithereens when it failed to stick the landing after a 7.8-mile suborbital flight.
Starship SN9 only flew to an altitude of about 6.2 miles but its landing attempt was equally explosive.
The rocket came crashing down next to the Starship prototype, SN10, which was rolled out onto the launchpad last week.
Both SN8 and SN9 attempted a so-called belly-flop manoeuvre.
After SN9 reached its desired altitude yesterday it briefly hovered in the air and then tipped over at a 90-degree angle.
The rocket then fell to the ground belly-side down and was guided by the four flaps on its sides.
Falling to the ground this way, SpaceX hopes, will prepare Starship for atmospheric entry on worlds like Mars where spaceports and launchpads are an alien concept.
SpaceX said: “SN9 successfully performed a propellant transition to the internal header tanks, which hold landing propellant, before reorienting itself for reentry and a controlled aerodynamic descent.
“The Starship prototype descended under active aerodynamic control, accomplished by independent movement of two forward and two aft flaps on the vehicle.
“All four flaps are actuated by an onboard flight computer to control Starship’s attitude during flight and enable precise landing at the intended location.”
So why did the Starship prototype crash into the launchpad?
According to SpaceX, one of the spacecraft’s three engines gave out just before landing.
As SN9 approached the ground it fired its engines in a bid to flip upright again.
Close-up video of the attempt, however, shows one of the engines did not fire and debris was seen flying away from the rocket.
SpaceX said: “During the landing flip manoeuvre, one of the Raptor engines did not relight and caused SN9 to land at high speed and experience an RUD.”
An RUD in the world of rocket engineering stands for “rapid unscheduled disassembly”.
But not all is lost, however, as SpaceX still considers the crash landing a partial success.
The company said: “These test flights are all about improving our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.”
Starship is being developed as a means of sending humans on inter-planetary voyages, while drastically cutting down on the cost of spaceflight by making Starship completely reusable.
SpaceX chief Elon Musk has envisioned a fleet of Starships supplying the crew and cargo needed to build the first human outpost on Mars.
The South African billionaire has recently spoken about his plan to build a self-sustaining city on the Red Planet.
He said: “I think the important part is to get there and establish a self-sustaining civilisation, or a least a self-sustaining city.”