SpaceX postpones debut flight of Starship rocket, citing frozen valve

BOCA CHICA, Texas, April 17 (Reuters) – Elon Musk’s SpaceX aborted the long-awaited debut launch of its newly combined Starship cruise ship and Super Heavy rocket in the final minutes of the countdown due to a frozen valve, delaying the unmanned test flight for at least two days.

The two-stage rocket ship, which stands taller than the Statue of Liberty at 394 feet (1[ads1]20 m) tall, was originally scheduled to blast off from the SpaceX “Starbase” facility in Boca Chica, Texas, during a two-hour launch window that began at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT).

But the California-based space company announced in a live webcast that it was scrubbing the planned 90-minute flight into space for a minimum of 48 hours, citing a frozen pressure valve in the rocket’s lower stage booster. That would make Wednesday the next available launch window for the mission.

SpaceX officials on the webcast said ground crews would still continue to fill the rocket before flight until the final seconds of Monday’s countdown, making the canceled launch bid a “wet dress rehearsal” for the next attempt.

Musk, the company’s billionaire founder and CEO, told a private Twitter audience Sunday night that the mission had a better chance of being scrubbed than going ahead with a launch on Monday.

Getting the vehicle into space for the first time will represent a major milestone in SpaceX’s ambition to send humans back to the moon and eventually to Mars — at least initially as part of NASA’s recently inaugurated human spaceflight program, Artemis.

A successful debut flight would also instantly rank the Starship system as the most powerful launch vehicle on Earth.

Both the lower-stage Super Heavy booster and the upper-stage Starship cruiser it would carry into space are designed as reusable components, capable of flying back to Earth for soft landings — a maneuver that has become routine for SpaceX’s smaller Falcon 9- rocket.

But neither step would be restored for the first expendable test to space. Instead, both parts of the spacecraft would end their first flight with crash landings at sea — the upper stage of the starship descending into the Pacific Ocean after completing nearly a full orbit around Earth.

Prototypes of the Starship cruise ship have made five subspace flights up to 6 miles (10 km) above Earth in recent years, but the Super Heavy booster has never left the ground.

In February, SpaceX tested the booster, igniting 31 of its 33 Raptor engines for about 10 seconds with the rocket bolted into place vertically atop a platform.

Just last Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a license for what would be the first test flight of the fully stacked rocket system, clearing a final regulatory hurdle for the long-awaited launch.

If all goes as planned for the next launch bid, all 33 Raptor engines will fire simultaneously to lift the starship on a flight most of the way around Earth before re-entering the atmosphere and free-falling into the Pacific Ocean at supersonic speed, about 97 km off the coast of the northern Hawaiian Islands.

After separating from the starship, the Super Heavy booster is expected to perform the beginning of a controlled return flight before plunging into the Gulf of Mexico.

As designed, the Starship rocket is nearly twice as powerful as NASA’s own Space Launch System (SLS), which made its uncrewed debut in orbit in November, sending a NASA cruise ship called Orion on a 10-day trip around the moon and back.

Reporting by Joe Skipper in Boca Chica, Texas, and Joey Roulette in Denver; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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