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SpaceX prepares to launch the largest rocket ever built

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In South Texas today, the commercial spaceflight company SpaceX called off the launch of its giant stainless steel rocket. The cause of the scrub? A frozen valve. The company may try again in the coming days. As NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, SpaceX has a lot riding on this test flight.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: This enormous rocket is called Starship. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was in Texas last year to show it off.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELON MUSK: Thank you very much for your support.

BRUMFIEL: The giant, gleaming rocket stood on the pad behind him. When mounted on its super-heavy booster, it's nearly 400 feet tall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUSK: Super-heavy - it's the largest flying object of any kind or will be.

BRUMFIEL: Larger than even the Saturn V rockets that took astronauts to the moon over half a century ago. They were built by NASA at the height of the Cold War at enormous cost to the U.S. government. SpaceX is a private company which is already making money with smaller rockets. That raises a big question.

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MUSK: Why are we doing this? (Laughter).

BRUMFIEL: And, of course, Elon Musk being Elon Musk, he's got a big answer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MUSK: Eventually, the sun will expand and destroy all life. So for those who really care about not just the humans but all the life on Earth, it is very important, essential that over the long term, that we become a multi-planet species and ultimately even go beyond the solar system and bring life with us.

BRUMFIEL: Actually, there's a much more down-to-earth reason that SpaceX wants this megarocket to work. I'll get to that in a second. But first, how does it work? Paulo Lozano is director of the Space Propulsion Laboratory at MIT.

PAULO LOZANO: It's a very complex machine. It has so many different components. And many of those components are very critical, of course.

BRUMFIEL: The most important component - giant engines called Raptors. Starship uses six to fly. They're fueled by methane and oxygen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one...

BRUMFIEL: And in early flight tests like this one in March of 2021, they can cause problems. All went well at liftoff. But when one of the engines restarted to land...

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE EXPLODING)

BRUMFIEL: ...It exploded.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Starship 11 is not coming back. Don't wait for the landing.

BRUMFIEL: That test was only for the spacefaring part of the rocket. The super-heavy booster uses 33 Raptor engines. Lozano says it's a great system for producing a lot of thrust, but...

LOZANO: Having that large number of rocket engines firing simultaneously, it's actually quite hard. I think that's going to be one of the biggest challenges.

BRUMFIEL: The booster has only been tested on the ground so far. OK, so now let's get back to why SpaceX is doing this because aside from saving life on Earth from the eventual death of the sun, there are some important business reasons it wants this rocket to work. The company's main prospects for revenue growth in the near term come from its satellite-based internet service known as Starlink. There's been strong interest from users, but the Starlink system is currently limited by how many subscribers it can support. Tim Farrar is president of TMF Associates, a telecom consulting firm.

TIM FARRAR: In order to continue to grow their subscriber base, they need more capacity. And that's going to require more and bigger satellites.

BRUMFIEL: We're talking potentially thousands of additional satellites. Right now, SpaceX's smaller rocket can only launch a few dozen at a time. Starship can launch many more and larger, heavier satellites the company can use to increase profitability.

FARRAR: If they can get Starship going, that will clearly help a lot.

BRUMFIEL: NASA is also paying SpaceX to develop a version of Starship to visit the moon. And Musk wants to send people to Mars, though both those projects are years away. For now, investors seem happy to let SpaceX try out its massive, potentially interplanetary rocket. But Farrar says if the launch fails and Starship falls further behind schedule, it could affect all of SpaceX's business.

FARRAR: If things change and people lose confidence and people lose that belief, then things are going to look very different.

BRUMFIEL: It's a big gamble that could pay off, but SpaceX understands it's risky. When the company recently posted its timeline for the flight, instead of calling the moment of launch liftoff, it wrote simply, excitement guaranteed. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.