Elon Musk's efforts to put a man on the Moon, and possibly Mars, ended in mid-flight failure Thursday after SpaceX's Starship exploded shortly after taking off on its maiden flight from a launchpad in South Texas.
In a tweet shortly after the launch, SpaceX founder and CEO Musk congratulated the SpaceX team on "an exciting test launch" and said the company has "learned a lot for the next launch in a few months."
The goal of the test launch was for the rocket to reach speeds fast enough to enter orbit, before descending into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. While this was an unmanned flight, the Starship, one of the most powerful rockets ever built, is designed to carry cargo and passengers into space.
In the days leading up to the launch, Musk had expressed the possibility of an explosion, and said it may take several tries before Starship succeeds at a test flight. Starship was originally set to take flight on Monday but the launch was delayed on account of a mechanical issue.
The company had planned to conduct a launch as early as the summer of 2021, but had to await approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which finally came Friday.
The launch comes amid a rough patch for the U.S. space industry. Investment in space projects fell 53% in the three months ending March 31, the lowest quarter of funding in the sector since 2015, venture capital (VC) firm Space Capital said Thursday.
The report that underscores the cash crunch for the capital-intensive space industry comes shortly after Richard Branson’s space-centered startup, Virgin Orbit Holdings, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month, Of the more than 100 launch companies tracked by Space Capital, that collectively raised $27 billion over the past decade, only two—SpaceX and Rocket Lab—remain operational.
SpaceX’s Starship has the potential to radically transform the space economy by making “existing infrastructure obsolete, accelerating growth in existing markets, and enabling entirely new industries,” said Space Capital. The report also highlighted the potential of advancements in AI and terrestrial tech to transform the market.
SpaceX has endured setbacks in the past, including the failed launches of Falcon 1, its original rocket, and initial unsuccessful landings of the company’s Falcon 9 boosters. The company has consistently tweaked its systems to enable successful launches since, becoming one of the world's most valuable privately-held companies with a large cash buffer to help absorb setbacks.