WATCH: SpaceX Prototype Rocket Almost Lands, Massively Explodes Instead

by Jon D. B.
(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

While the explosion is a sight to witness, the remarkable feat of this SpaceX rocket prototype comes from what it was able to accomplish beforehand.

For SpaceX founder Elon Musk, today’s flight of the SN8 Starship SpaceX Rocket prototype was a huge success. At first, everything was going according to plan, as well. The SN8 lifted off from its launch pad just before 2:00 p.m. PT. According to Musk, the primary function of this flight was to retrieve data. As such, the SN8 was to climb eight miles (12.5 kilometers) into the atmosphere for its first high-altitude test flight.

Once in the atmosphere, SN8 would then shut off its Raptor engines one at a time. “This suborbital flight is designed to test a number of objectives,” SpaceX announced earlier this week. “From how the vehicle’s three Raptor engines perform, and the overall aerodynamic entry capabilities of the vehicle, including its body flaps, to how the vehicle manages propellant transition.”

Soon after, Elon Musk let the public know that a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” – or explosion, in layman’s terms – was very possible due to the experimental nature of the flight. Giving the SN8 a 1/3 chance of surviving the ordeal, Musk made it clear his primary focus was indeed the aforementioned data.

SpaceX Successfully “Belly Flops” Prototype

During the test flight, as each Raptor engine began shutting down independently, the SpaceX rocket took on a peculiar life of its own. Able to hover with one engine, SN8 began to resemble a flying saucer mid-flight. Then, as further tests were needed, the final Raptor engine shut off, and the rocket began its gravitational free-fall back to the surface. And this is where the breakthrough comes in.

While in free fall, SpaceX’s rocket was able to use external thrusters to “belly flop” the entire rocket. As such, it performed a perfect, steady flip maneuver. It does so in order to orient itself vertically to prepare for landing. The landing would take place with a single propulsion engine slowing the rocket before touchdown.

“Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control to landing point!” Musk narrates for this portion of the flight via Twitter.

Unfortunately, however, the rocket would not slow quickly enough and met an explosive ending on the Texas Gulf landing pad. SpaceX does note, though, that the wreckage pinpoints the rocket landing directly on target.

Watch SpaceX SN8 Rocket Explode on Landing

As for that explosive landing, Elon Musk tweeted that the “fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD.” Reiterating SpaceX’s successful findings within the test flight, however, Musk states “we got all the data we needed! Congrats SpaceX team hell yeah!!”

Much of SpaceX’s 2020 activity has been for the gathering of data, and likeminded tests. The company continues to perfect their next-generation rockets. Each, they hope, will soon take us, humans, to our moon, then Mars, then infinity – and beyond.

Just within the past 18 months, several “hops”, or test flights with landings, have been successfully pulled off by SpaceX. Our space-bound future, it seems, is a whole lot closer than it feels.