(Reuters) - SpaceX test-launched an early prototype of the company’s Mars rocket on Tuesday, unnerving residents near the Texas site and clearing another key hurdle in billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s interplanetary ambitions.
After the launch, Musk congratulated engineers from SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp, and posted a photo of Starhopper touching down on its landing pad with billowing clouds of dust and sand rising from the ground.
“One day Starship will land on the rusty sands of Mars,” Musk tweeted.
The prototype, dubbed Starhopper, slowly rose about 500 feet (152m) off its launch pad in Brownsville, Texas, and propelled itself some 650 feet (198m) eastward onto an adjacent landing platform, completing a seemingly successful low-altitude test of SpaceX’s next-generation Raptor engine.
The Raptor is designed to power Musk’s forthcoming heavy-lift Starship rocket, a reusable two-stage booster taller than the Statue of Liberty that is expected to play a central role in Musk’s interplanetary space travel objectives, including missions to Mars.
The prototype “hopper” vehicle, resembling a chrome water tower with three landing legs, was originally slated for its test liftoff on Monday. But a “rather embarrassing” wiring issue with the single Raptor engine halted the countdown less than a second before ignition, Musk, the SpaceX founder and chief executive, said on Twitter.
About a dozen residents in the adjacent village of Boca Chica, just over a mile from the test site, had been urged three days in advance by local authorities to vacate their homes in case of a possible “overpressure event” that could shatter windows and endanger anyone indoors in the event of an explosive malfunction.
“If it wasn’t right in my backyard I’d probably be fine with it,” said Cheryl Stevens, who plans to retire in Boca Chica, in an interview. “It almost looked like a cartoon or something. ... After all the buildup, it was kind of nice to actually see it happen.”
Maria Pointer, another resident, set up cameras and invited photographers to her home. She said excitement surrounding the launch reminded her of “feeling like you’re going on a Ferris wheel.”
Other residents complained about road closures and confusing public notices.
“It’s kind of like a double-edged sword,” said resident Terry Heaton, adding that access to the nearby beach was blocked off every time SpaceX attempted an engine test.
The next step for Raptor will be to carry out additional ground-based firings of the engine bolted to a stationary test stand, Musk said.
Reporting by Joey Roulette in Washington; Editing by Bill Tarrant Cooney and Richard Chang