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SpaceX readies to launch the biggest rocket ever made. Will it get off the ground?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

There was a lot of excitement this morning over the flight company SpaceX's planned launch of the biggest rocket ever made. Earlier today, NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel and I were discussing all the ways this could go wrong, you know, like the rocket exploding, or the way things could go right. But the launch of the Starship spacecraft - well, it didn't happen at all.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The weather was excellent. Everything was looking good. Sadly, we just have the one issue.

FADEL: So Geoff is back with us to explain what that one issue was. Good morning, Geoff.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi there, Leila.

FADEL: OK, so what happened?

BRUMFIEL: Well, there was a problem on the giant booster rocket that carries Starship into orbit. A valve in the pressurization system was frozen, and that one little valve in this giant stainless-steel booster was enough to call everything off. Now, this isn't a super rare problem. This rocket uses liquid methane and liquid oxygen. They have to be chilled to very low temperatures. And unfortunately, as anyone who's tried to open a car door after an ice storm knows, sometimes when everything gets cold, something gets stuck.

FADEL: OK, so no launch today, but they say they'll try again in a few days. What do you think we should expect then?

BRUMFIEL: Well, there's sort of two possible outcomes, broadly speaking. You know, the thing SpaceX wants to happen is this rocket will lift off smoothly, fly into space, circle partway around the Earth and splash down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. But there's also the possibility of what rocket scientists like to call a rapid unscheduled disassembly - in other words, an explosion. And that's a real risk because this is a new kind of rocket. As I mentioned, it's made of stainless steel, which is cheap and tough but very heavy. And that means the rocket needs a lot of power. It gets that power from a bunch of engines. The Starship part of it uses six engines. The booster stage needs 33. That's more than any other rocket ever made. And if even one of these engines blows up, it's curtains for the whole thing. Though I should say there's no one on board in this test flight, so even if it explodes, no one should get hurt.

FADEL: Wow. So a lot of ways it could explode.

BRUMFIEL: (Laughter).

FADEL: It seems like a big risk for a private company. What's in it for SpaceX? What does it want this giant rocket for?

BRUMFIEL: Well, there's one word that sums it up. It's actually a planet. It's Mars. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is obsessed with getting people to Mars. He believes this rocket is the first step. It's large enough to deliver a lot of cargo into orbit cheaply. And SpaceX says the Starship itself could go. Musk believes it could even help create a settlement on Mars.

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ELON MUSK: Starship is capable of doing that. It's capable of getting a million tons to the surface of Mars and creating a self-sustaining city.

BRUMFIEL: NASA is also paying SpaceX to develop a version that could land on the moon. And finally, there's a business reason for the company to pursue this. It has a satellite internet company called Starlink that needs more satellites to grow its subscriber base. The current rocket can launch dozens. That's the current rocket SpaceX uses. Starship could potentially launch hundreds more satellites. So it could be a big help.

FADEL: OK, so today they played it safe. What are the stakes for SpaceX if something does go wrong?

BRUMFIEL: Well, SpaceX doesn't mind having its rockets blow up. They kind of embrace failure on the road to success. And it's a development strategy that's worked well for them in the past. But, you know, these are difficult times for the tech sector, and a failure could affect efforts to raise more money by SpaceX. So there's good reasons not to take chances, play it safe, and that's why they called it off today.

FADEL: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thank you so much. And I'm sure we'll talk again when this launch maybe happens?

BRUMFIEL: Yep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.