SpaceX engineer John Insprucker, who hosted a webcast of the test launch, said the rocket, known as SN11, had a normal ascent and that all appeared to be well before on-board cameras lost signal and the vehicle was subsumed by fog moments before landing. Insprucker said the company will share updates on social media once SpaceX engineers are able to check out the landing site. The area surrounding the vehicle must be cleared before liftoff for safety reasons.
Insprucker said the company is not expecting to recover video footage. “Don’t wait for landing,” he advised webcast viewers.
Independent video streamers that recorded the flight did not capture the last stretch of the flight either due to fog, but NASASpaceflight — a media site — reported that one of the outlet’s cameras may have been struck by debris from the rocket. Footage of the launch pad showed SN11 was nowhere in sight after the rocket’s descent.
SN11 is an early iteration of Starship, the vehicle that Musk envisions will one day carry the first humans to Mars. It’s also the fourth prototype that SpaceX has launched on a high-altitude test flight as the company works to hash out how the massive vehicle will safely land upright after returning to Earth.
Perfecting the belly-flop landing maneuver is essential to “enable 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,” according to the company’s website.
SpaceX intends to use Starship for a variety of purposes, including shuttling paying customers between cities at breakneck speeds, potentially aiding NASA’s Moon landing efforts, and, eventually, launching cargo and human missions to Mars.
Musk said during a recent interview with podcast host Joe Rogan that he expects Starship will be conducting regular flights by 2023, and he hopes the vehicle will reach orbit by the end of this year. It’s not clear if SpaceX will hit that deadline. The aerospace industry is notorious for announcing projects that take far longer than first anticipated, and Musk is particularly prone to that.