An uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft exploded minutes after liftoff from South Texas on Thursday, cutting short a key step in Elon Musk’s development of a rocket vessel to eventually take humans to the moon and Mars.
The test flight was the first for Starship mounted atop the company’s new Super Heavy rocket booster, which SpaceX has touted as the world’s most powerful.
Even though the two-stage rocket ship failed to make it beyond an altitude of 23 miles (37 km), the flight achieved a primary objective of getting the new spacecraft off the ground in an otherwise seemingly clean liftoff.
While SpaceX officials were heartened by the outcome, the mission fell short of reaching several of its objectives.
The plan was to deploy Starship into space and have it reenter Earth’s atmosphere 60 miles (97 km) off a Hawaiian coast before plunging into the Pacific. But the explosion cut the mission short.
Musk, SpaceX’s founder, chief executive and chief engineer, had appeared eager to temper expectations in remarks made Sunday that downplayed the odds of a successful first flight. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told a conference in February that the “real goal” of the test “is to not blow up the launch pad.”
Getting the newly combined Starship and booster rocket off the ground for the first time represented a milestone in SpaceX’s ambition of sending astronauts back to the moon and ultimately to Mars, as a major partner in Artemis, NASA’s newly inaugurated human spaceflight program.
“Congrats to @SpaceX on Starship’s first integrated flight test!,” NASA chief Bill Nelson said in a tweet. “Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward. Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test — and beyond.”
The two-stage rocket ship, standing taller than the Statue of Liberty at 394 feet (120 meters) high, blasted off from the company’s Starbase spaceport east of Brownsville, Texas. SpaceX hoped, at best, to pull off a 90-minute debut flight into space but just shy of Earth orbit.
A live SpaceX webcast showed the rocket ship rising from the Gulf Coast launch tower into the morning sky over the southern tip of Texas as the Super Heavy’s Raptor engines roared to life in a ball of flame and billowing clouds of exhaust and water vapor.
But less than four minutes into the flight, the upper-stage Starship failed to separate as designed from the lower-stage Super Heavy, and the combined vehicle was seen tumbling end over end before exploding.
The spacecraft reached a peak altitude of 23 miles (37 km) before its fiery disintegration.
It was not immediately clear whether the explosion was caused by the spacecraft’s automated flight-termination system, which is triggered onboard when the rocket begins to show signs of failure.
SpaceX Starship launches from Boca Chica near Brownsville
[1/7] SpaceX’s next-generation Starship spacecraft, atop its powerful Super Heavy rocket, explodes after its launch from the company’s Boca Chica launchpad on a brief uncrewed test flight near Brownsville, Texas, U.S., April 20, 2023. REUTERS/Joe Skipper
Nevertheless, SpaceX officials on the webcast hailed the feat of getting the Starship and booster rocket off the launch pad for the first time, declaring the brief episode in that sense to be a successful test flight.
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A throng of SpaceX workers shown during the webcast watching a livestream together at the company’s headquarters near Los Angeles cheered wildly as the rocket cleared the launch tower – and again when it blew up.
‘LEARNED A LOT’
SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker, serving as one of the webcast commentators, said the test flight would provide a wealth of important data paving the way for the company to move ahead with additional tests.
Musk said on Twitter that the next Starship test launch would be in a few months.
“Congrats @SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months,” he tweeted. Musk, who purchased Twitter last year for $44 billion, is also CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc.
The road to Thursday’s accident has not been without previous tests and setbacks.
A stationary test firing of the Super Heavy while bolted to a platform managed to ignite just 31 of its 33 Raptor engines in February, and an earlier static firing test in July 2022 ended with the vehicle’s engine section exploding.
Before that, SpaceX had test-launched prototypes of Starship’s top half in five subspace flights to an altitude of 6 miles (9.7 km), seeking to perfect its return landing capability. All but one of those crashed in flames.
The spectacular nature of Thursday’s loss of the first fully integrated Starship-and-booster vehicle during its introductory launch further highlighted challenges SpaceX faces moving beyond its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket, the centerpiece of the company’s satellite launch business.
Still even a textbook test flight on Thursday would have by design ended with the crash landings of both portions of the spacecraft into the water.
The lower-stage Super Heavy and the upper-stage Starship were each designed as reusable components, capable of flying back to Earth for soft landings – a maneuver that has become routine in dozens of missions for SpaceX’s smaller orbital-class Falcon 9 rockets.
But neither part of the spacecraft would have been recovered from Thursday’s launch. Instead, the flight plan called for the lower stage to fall into the Gulf of Mexico after separating from the upper stage, which would have come down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii after achieving nearly one full Earth orbit.
According to Musk, a number of additional Super Heavy boosters are already on deck in Boca Chica, Texas, for future test flights.