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SpaceX Is Holding Up America’s Lunar Ambitions

The second liftoff of Starship, SpaceX’s giant new rocket-and-spaceship system, went beautifully this morning, the fire of the engines matching the orange glow of the sunrise in South Texas. The spaceship soared over the Gulf Coast, with all 33 engines in the rocket booster pulsing. High in the sky, the vehicles separated seamlessly—through a technique that SpaceX debuted during this flight—and employees let out wild cheers. The booster soon exploded, but the flight could survive that. What mattered was that Starship was still flying. It could still coast along the edge of space, and then plunge back to Earth, crashing into the Pacific Ocean off of the coast of Hawaii, as SpaceX planned.

But then, as SpaceX mission control waited to hear a signal from Starship, there was only silence. Something had gone wrong after the ship shut off its engines in preparation to coast. The self-destruct system kicked in, and Starship blew itself up, according to SpaceX’s commentators, who were narrating the livestream. A “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” as SpaceXers call it.

SpaceX can certainly build more Starships, more rocket boosters. And the company made it further this time than at its first Starship launch attempt in April, in which the spaceship and booster exploded four minutes after liftoff. But today’s explosion still counts as a significant setback, and it may very well delay NASA’s timeline for putting Americans back on the moon.

The way Elon Musk talks about sending people to Mars, it’s easy to forget that his space company must first reach the moon. For more than 50 years, since the last Apollo astronauts stepped foot on its surface, our silvery satellite has been devoid of human visitors, but the U.S. has a plan for a triumphant return in late 2025. And that plan hinges on Starship.

SpaceX commentators described today’s short-lived flight as a success, just as the company did in April. And to an extent, they’re right. SpaceX is the most dominant rocket company in the world, and it has reached this status in part because of Musk’s hardnosed philosophy of rapid iteration—failing often and trying again. SpaceX has a whole shipyard of Starship prototypes, and more test flights will come, pending regulatory investigations and approval.

But this failed attempt is more concerning than the previous explosion. For one thing, it comes on the heels of a Reuters investigation that uncovered hundreds of previously unreported injuries at SpaceX, which current and former employees say are a result of a rushed, disordered culture and poor safety protocols. (It also comes on the heels of wide criticism of Musk’s antisemitism on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, where hateful speech has surged since Musk took over last year.) For another, SpaceX’s second failure in a row threatens to throw the country’s modern-day moon shot off schedule. NASA is counting on Starship, and the clock is ticking.

NASA’s current plan calls for a moon landing sometime in December 2025, the first of several visits that will transport the first woman and the first person of color to walk on the lunar surface. The space agency will launch astronauts into orbit on its own in-house rocket, but it plans to use a modified version of the Starship system, transformed into a moon lander, to carry crew to and from the lunar surface. (SpaceX plans to use Starship to launch more of its already ubiquitous Starlink satellites, and, of course, for future trips to Mars.)

NASA officials, however, are concerned that “technical difficulties associated with” the Starship moon lander will delay the scheduled moon landing to 2026, according to a recent report from NASA’s inspector general. NASA needed this second attempt to go off without a hitch, Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration-systems development, said at a space conference last month. “We need that to be successful to get us that much further down the road.”

From 1969 to 1972, our moon was not just a two-dimensional orb in the night sky, but somewhere humans actually went, to lay eyes on the cratered surface and bound effortlessly in gentle gravity. Apollo astronauts even filled out a U.S. customs form upon their return to Earth, a little hint of silliness to go along with an almost unbelievable feat. Then the Apollo program was over, and NASA moved on to the space-shuttle program and helped build the International Space Station.

But once you become a spacefaring species, it seems unthinkable that you would never go back to the moon, do more, go even farther. For years American leaders have talked on and off about returning, and the latest effort, Artemis, named for Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, is getting close to pulling it off. NASA has so far invested several billion dollars into Starship, which is much more powerful than the Saturn V rocket that launched Apollo astronauts more than 50 years ago. Officials are eager to move quickly; any significant delays are concerning because of “the space race of getting to the moon before China,” the NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a recent Washington Post interview. “And so of course we’re counting on SpaceX.”

Now that Starship has “disassembled,” the Federal Aviation Administration will likely open an investigation, as it did back in April, and hand SpaceX a list of things it must fix before the next attempt. If the past is any indication, SpaceX engineers will work even more intensely, and Musk will put even more pressure on them. The work won’t be over when Starship finally reaches orbit. SpaceX will have to prove that it can fly Starship over and over without incident before NASA agrees to put astronauts on board. SpaceX must also demonstrate a never-before-tested technique of fueling Starship while it floats in Earth’s orbit—using other, tanker-esque Starships—before heading off to the moon. And SpaceX must practice launching those tankers into orbit too.

Rocket launches always rattle the nerves, an emotional reminder of the capacity of human beings to do wild things with a little math and a lot of metal. The footage of Starship’s liftoff, before it descended into eerie silence, reminded me of a documentary about Apollo 11, released in 2019. The film is composed entirely of archival video from the 1960s, the only narration the tinny voices of newscasters, engineers, and astronauts. The footage from that first lunar landing, technically complex and perilous, is breathtaking.

To watch a Starship launch is to experience a glimmer of the future of space travel, to imagine the documentary scene that will one day be made about the Starship tests that eventually led to a glorious moon landing. Someday, historians may recognize these flights as a turning point in the journey to delivering people to the moon again, and maybe even to other worlds in the solar system. We are living in archival footage now. But SpaceX, together with NASA, has many more scenes to complete, including that most basic one: reaching orbit in one piece.

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