Starship, the largest rocket ever made, successfully launched SpaceX's third launch attempt of Starship took the spacecraft farther and higher than ever before.

Starship, the largest rocket ever made, successfully launched

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ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

Today in Texas, the largest rocket ever made lifted off from its launch pad.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Five, four...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two, one.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: ...Three, two, one.

SCHMITZ: The rocket was built by SpaceX. This was its third test flight with no crew on board, and although the spaceship did not make it back to Earth as planned, it's still being called a success. Joining me now to discuss why is NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Hey, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi, Rob.

SCHMITZ: So, Geoff, first off, just walk me through what happened this morning.

BRUMFIEL: Yeah. So this spacecraft is called Starship. It's a huge, towering, stainless steel monster. It took off. It separated from its booster. It sailed into orbit. And this was a huge first. There was so much excitement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We heard a callout for nominal orbital insertion, which is incredible. Look at these views, Dad.

SCHMITZ: Wow. Nominal orbital insertion never sounded so triumphant.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. That's right. And they were using SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation to broadcast these high-definition views from space that were really quite amazing. As it was falling back to Earth over the Indian Ocean, though, SpaceX lost contact, and they think it was destroyed.

SCHMITZ: So do we know what went wrong?

BRUMFIEL: Well, Starship was in the process of reentering the Earth's atmosphere, and this is one of the hardest things for any spacecraft to do. You could actually see on the video feed as this red-hot plasma gas built up around the body of the ship. I spoke to Paulo Lozano. He's a rocket scientist at MIT, and he said that the heat got even worse after the video feed cut out.

PAULO LOZANO: We didn't see the most violent phase of the reentry, when the velocity of the vehicle starts to actually go down because friction increases significantly.

BRUMFIEL: Now, Starship had some thermal tiles to help with that frictional heating, but clearly it wasn't enough, and the spacecraft probably broke into pieces.

SCHMITZ: So SpaceX is still calling this mission a success. Why is that, if the spaceship was destroyed?

BRUMFIEL: You know, it turns out rocket science is kind of tricky. Lozano said he was really impressed by this test.

LOZANO: I think it went very well.

BRUMFIEL: And that's because so many things went right. You know, the first stage of this rocket has 33 engines that have to fire all at once. The first time they tried that, it did not go well. The engines failed. The rocket spun out of control. The second time they tried to launch, in November, the Starship itself actually caught fire and self-destructed. So, yeah, things didn't go perfectly. But this is the way SpaceX makes progress.

LOZANO: I'm pretty sure that people are going to learn significant lessons from what happened today and maybe for the next launch.

SCHMITZ: So lessons learned. Looking forward, where is all of this headed?

BRUMFIEL: Well, SpaceX has a long way to go before they can call this whole Starship program a success. That's because what they're aiming for here is a highly reusable giant launch vehicle, and they want to use it for all sorts of things. They want to launch more Starlink satellites. NASA wants them to take astronauts to the moon. And ultimately, the big prize here is Mars. Elon Musk wants Starship to take people to colonize Mars. But I think there's a long way to go before they get to the red planet. This is just one little step.

SCHMITZ: That's NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks, Geoff.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARSHIP SONG, "NOTHING'S GONNA STOP US NOW")

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