SpaceX Starship rocket lost in second test flight

By Jackie Wattles, CNN

Updated 1949 GMT (0349 HKT) November 18, 2023
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2:01 p.m. ET, November 18, 2023

Our live coverage has wrapped up for the day. Read more here about today’s SpaceX launch.

1:56 p.m. ET, November 18, 2023

Catch up: Starship's second test flight

From CNN's Ashley Strickland

SpaceX's Starship launches from Starbase during its second test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, November 18.
SpaceX's Starship launches from Starbase during its second test flight in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, November 18. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

The uncrewed Starship spacecraft launched aboard the most powerful rocket ever built on Saturday morning, but both were lost shortly after liftoff.

The Super Heavy rocket booster ignited its 33 massive engines and Starship experienced a safe liftoff. SpaceX tried “hot staging” for the first time, essentially a step in which the spacecraft separated from the rocket booster by blunt force trauma.

After hot staging, the rocket booster exploded in a fireball over the Gulf of Mexico. Starship initially continued on just fine before SpaceX lost the spacecraft’s signal and triggered the system’s software to terminate the flight so it didn’t veer off course.

Starship was intended to fly nearly a lap around the planet before returning to Earth, but data from this second test flight will be used to determine SpaceX’s next steps in making humanity “multiplanetary.”

1:26 p.m. ET, November 18, 2023

Why exactly SpaceX lost contact with Starship is still unclear

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

Around 10 minutes into the uncrewed test flight, SpaceX lost contact with Starship, and so far hasn't publicly shared any potential theories as to what might have gone wrong.

In a statement issued after the launch, the company said it would review data from the mission and share updates on its website.

The FAA is also expected to begin a mishap investigation of the test, as is routine after any space mission that does not go exactly to plan. The agency said Saturday in a statement, "No injuries or public property damage have been reported," as a result of the launch.

12:50 p.m. ET, November 18, 2023

A look at the launch site, post-flight

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

SpaceX's launchpad appears to be fully intact, indicating that a new water deluge system used to dampen the jarring forces of the Super Heavy rocket's engines during takeoff helped keep the ground facilities safe.

Cameron County — the Texas county that encompasses Starship's launch site — opened the single road that runs out to SpaceX's launch facility and the public beaches shortly after launch. It was a quick turnaround for the county, which left the roads closed significantly longer after the inaugural test launch in April.

The launchpad appeared to have avoided becoming a "rock tornado" after Saturday's launch.
The launchpad appeared to have avoided becoming a "rock tornado" after Saturday's launch. (Jackie Wattles/CNN)

One key factor at play: SpaceX acknowledged that the sheer force of Super Heavy's engines after the April launch tore apart the launchpad. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk referred to it as a "rock tornado."

But the new deluge system used during this launch shot nearly 360,000 gallons of water upward as the engines ignited during this morning's launch. When CNN visited the launch site a few hours after takeoff, the stand that the rocket launched from appeared to be unharmed and there were no immediately visible signs of large debris in the area.

11:44 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

How far did Starship travel today?

From CNN's Jackie Wattles and Ashley Strickland

After separating from the Super Heavy rocket booster, the Starship spacecraft soared to an altitude of approximately 93 miles (150 kilometers) before SpaceX lost contact, according to a statement issued by the company.

For context, the US government considers 50 miles (80 kilometers) above Earth’s surface the edge of outer space. Internationally, the Kármán line, located 62 miles (100 kilometers) above sea level, is often used to mark the boundary between our planet and space — but there’s a lot of gray area.

11:18 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

From Falcon 1 to Starship: How this rocket fits into SpaceX’s grand plans 

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

SpaceX's Falcon 1 at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Omelek Island, in November 2005.
SpaceX's Falcon 1 at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Omelek Island, in November 2005. Tom Rogers/Reuters

SpaceX has a lot of rockets and a few programs that start with "Star." To avoid confusion, here's a quick recap of some of the things this company has built.

Let's start with the rockets:

  • Falcon 1: This was SpaceX's very first rocket, which first reached orbit in 2008. It was retired just a year later, as the company turned its focus to larger rockets.
  • Falcon 9: This is SpaceX's workhorse rocket. It flies the vast majority of the company's missions — taking satellites and NASA astronauts to orbit. So far in 2023 alone, the Falcon 9 has launched more than 70 spaceflights.
  • Falcon Heavy: This is a scaled-up version of Falcon 9 that SpaceX uses on missions that require a bit more power, such as lofting heavy satellites to distant orbits. The rocket has flown three times so far this year.
  • Starship: Musk has called Starship the "holy grail" rocket, and it is far more powerful than anything SpaceX has built before. He envisions it one day carrying humans to Mars for the first time.
In recent remarks, Musk said Starship makes the Falcon 1 look like "a high school project."

And here are some other notable "Star" references in the commercial space world:

  • Starlink: This is SpaceX's space-based internet project that uses thousands of satellites to beam connectivity across the globe.
  • Starbase: The name SpaceX uses to refer to its facilities in South Texas
  • Starliner: This is not a SpaceX project at all. It's an astronaut spacecraft that Boeing is developing.
10:54 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

SpaceX already has more Starships built

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

SpaceX is OK with rockets exploding in the early stages of development.

That's because the company uses a completely different approach to rocket design than, say, NASA. The space agency focuses on building one rocket and strenuously designing and testing it on the ground before its first flight — taking years but all but guaranteeing success on the first launch.

SpaceX, however, rapidly builds new prototypes and is willing to test them to their breaking point because there's usually a spare nearby. During a drive by the company's facilities on Friday — four Starship spacecraft and at least two Super Heavy boosters could be seen from public roadways.

11:20 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

This is how some of SpaceX's most hardcore fans viewed the launch

From CNN's Jackie Wattles

Most of the public at today's launch of the Starship rocket system watched from South Padre Island, which lies about 5 miles away from the launch site across the water.

But one group of hardcore fans got a bit closer to the behemoth rocket as it roared to life, sending out shockwaves of sonic booms and plumes of exhaust and dust across the landscape.

They gathered at a place aptly named Rocket Ranch — which was created for SpaceX obsessionists.

The camping site and a remote viewing location lie just up the road from the Starship's launchpad off Boca Chica Highway, a narrow strip of asphalt that serves as the only way of trekking to and from SpaceX's facilities in South Texas.

The sun rises over "The Outpost" — a launch viewing location dedicated to Starship.
The sun rises over "The Outpost" — a launch viewing location dedicated to Starship. Anthony Gomez

When CNN visited on Friday ahead of the launch, Rocket Ranch's managing partner — Anthony Gomez — was herding dozens of campers and SpaceX fans onto a refurbished school bus.

Guests had to travel by bus from the camping ground to the viewing site on Friday night because the surrounding roads were blocked off ahead of the launch to keep people out of the area. Otherwise, the only way to access "The Outpost" is by a small pontoon boat in the Rio Grande River.

The viewing site is so close to the pad that patrons had to sign waivers.

"I voluntarily assume all risks associated with viewing rocket launches on Rocket Ranch property, including the risk of physical and emotional harm," the waiver reads.

Overnight, the spectators made fajitas as the excitement built.

Crowds of SpaceX fans gathered at "The Outpost," a viewing site for the launch available to guests of the nearby Rocket Ranch. The "Don't Panic" sign is a reference to Douglas Adams' famed book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." SpaceX has also used the reference.
Crowds of SpaceX fans gathered at "The Outpost," a viewing site for the launch available to guests of the nearby Rocket Ranch. The "Don't Panic" sign is a reference to Douglas Adams' famed book "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." SpaceX has also used the reference. Anthony Gomez

Gomez said the crowds grew rowdy as the countdown clock ticked through its final seconds, screaming "go Starship!"

The sounds of the engines "shook you to your core," he said.

"The tears began to flow all around us," Gomez said via text message. "Everyone seemed to embrace, as they understood what was being accomplished here, in Boca Chica. Something we all feel the world needs to see for themselves: The future of our kind takes one step closer to reaching the stars.
"This is the most beautiful thing we've ever seen," he said.

9:59 a.m. ET, November 18, 2023

Federal regulators report no injuries or property damage

From CNN's Jackie Wattles and Kristin Fisher

The Federal Aviation Administration, which licensed the Starship's test flight today, just issued a statement:

A mishap occurred during the SpaceX Starship OFT-2 launch from Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, Nov. 18. The anomaly resulted in a loss of the vehicle. No injuries or public property damage have been reported.

The agency is expected to begin a mishap investigation of the launch, as is routine after any space mission that does not go exactly to plan.

It took more than four months for the FAA to complete the last mishap investigation after Starship's test flight in April.