SpaceX has pretty much nailed every Falcon 9 landing in the past year or two. Landing a jumbo-sized spacecraft, however, was never going to be easy. CEO Elon Musk already set fans’ and spectators’ expectations low when he warned that mishaps would happen when it tries to land its Starship SN8 prototype. Mishap did happen, resulting in the giant rocket becoming scrap metal, but the crash was not enough to mar the success and significance of SpaceX’s most recent leap for space travel and mankind.
The Starship is Musk’s biggest obsession, figuratively and literally. While the Falcon 9 rocket is designed to carry satellites, cargo, and, now, human crew to orbital space stations, the Starship and its Super Heavy booster would be the key to realizing Musk’s dream of colonizing Mars.
Getting there, however, requires baby steps, at least in giant rocket proportions. After several test “hops”, SpaceX dared to take a higher jump, this time just 41,000 ft/12.5 km above ground on a suborbital flight, not much different from a conventional commercial airplane. That alone would have been a success but SpaceX had a loftier goal, one that actually spelled doom for the Starship SN8.
SpaceX wanted to test its control of the Starship by executing what was termed as a “belly flop”. In a nutshell, this meant that the large spacecraft would lie horizontally on its belly while it descended and then flip vertically again to land. Unfortunately, the Starship failed to slow down sufficiently in its descent and landed too fast, creating an explosion that completely destroyed the Starship.
Despite that expensive loss, Musk considers the test an overall success, giving them all the data they needed for future test flights. He has, after all, other Starship prototypes waiting in line to take more baby steps towards Mars.