Elon Musk’s Starship spacecraft, developed by SpaceX, experienced a major setback in its test flight, exploding only minutes after takeoff. The spacecraft was uncrewed and the launch took place in South Texas. The Starship spacecraft was mounted on the company’s new Super Heavy rocket, which is touted as the most powerful launch vehicle on Earth. The primary objective of the test was to get the new vehicle off the ground at liftoff, even though some of its engines failed. The spacecraft made it less than halfway to the edge of space, climbing to just under 25 miles (40 km).
SpaceX’s plan was for the Starship to soar into space at least 90 miles (150 km) above Earth before it would re-enter the atmosphere and plunge into the Pacific near Hawaii. However, the spacecraft experienced multiple engines out during its ascent, then lost altitude and began to tumble before the flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and the ship. Despite the setback, the flight test achieved a primary objective of getting the new vehicle off the ground at liftoff despite some of its engines failing.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, chief executive, and chief engineer, had downplayed the odds of a successful first flight in remarks made Sunday. Musk appeared eager to temper expectations. Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s President, had told a conference in February that the real goal was to not blow up the launch pad.
NASA’s newly inaugurated human spaceflight program, Artemis, has SpaceX as a major partner. Bill Nelson, NASA’s chief, congratulated SpaceX on Twitter, stating that every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk.
The rocket ship, standing taller than the Statue of Liberty at 394 feet (120 meters), blasted off from the company’s Starbase spaceport on the southern tip of Texas. A live SpaceX webcast showed the rocket ship rising from the launch tower into the morning sky as the Super Heavy’s Raptor engines roared to life in a ball of flame and billowing clouds of exhaust and water vapor. 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 blowing apart.
Musk tweeted afterward that the next Starship test launch would be in a few months. SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker said the experience would provide a wealth of data to inform further flight tests.
Despite the setback, SpaceX remains a major player in space exploration, and the setback serves as a learning opportunity. The road to Thursday’s accident has not been without previous tests and setbacks. Before this flight, SpaceX had test-launched prototypes of Starship’s top half in five short flights to an altitude of 6 miles (9.7 km), seeking to perfect its return landing capability. All but one crashed in flames.
The Super Heavy and Starship were each designed as reusable components, capable of flying back to Earth for soft landings in a maneuver that has become routine in dozens of missions for SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets. For Thursday’s launch, however, 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.