A third prototype of SpaceX’s next-generation rocket, Starship, broke apart during a pressure test at the company’s test site in Boca Chica, Texas. Early this morning, the test vehicle crumpled and then collapsed in on itself after it had been filled up with super cold propellant, according to a video live stream recorded by locals in the area.
It’s yet another very visible test failure for SpaceX’s Starship, which is supposed to launch people and cargo to deep-space destinations someday. SpaceX lost one Starship test article in March when the vehicle imploded during a similar pressure test. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk blamed that failure on a bad “puck” at the base of the vehicle. Another Starship prototype also burst apart in November during a pressure test, though the company mostly brushed off the loss.
Before this morning’s failure occurred, Musk noted on Twitter that some valves leaked during an earlier test — something the team had to fix before retesting. As for why the Starship vehicle ultimately burst, Musk says a “test configuration mistake” may be to blame, though the team will do a data review this morning.
We will see what data review says in the morning, but this may have been a test configuration mistake— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 3, 2020
In the meantime, SpaceX employees have been hard at work in Boca Chica prepping and building hardware for future Starship prototypes, so it’s possible a new test unit will be ready soon. SpaceX is considered an essential business due to its contracts with NASA and the Department of Defense, which allows the company to continue working as other businesses close during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As SpaceX pushes ahead with Starship right now, other space companies are grappling with how to move forward during the pandemic. California-based Rocket Lab has chosen to stand down from launches at its facility in New Zealand to keep personnel safe, while Virgin Orbit has pivoted to mass-producing ventilators to help fill gaps in the health care system. Meanwhile, Blue Origin is trying to push ahead with a launch of its New Shepard rocket, designed to take tourists into space, though employees at the company have expressed their concerns about traveling for the mission.
SpaceX has produced hand sanitizer and face shields to donate to hospitals and other groups during this public health crisis. But it doesn’t seem that the company plans to slow down Starship development as the pandemic worsens throughout the US.