SpaceX’s Starship lifted off the pad in Southern Texas and cleared the launchpad, its first milestone, but then began tumbling as it was preparing for stage separation and the vehicle came apart some four minutes into flight.
“Obviously this does not appear to be a normal situation,” SpaceX’s John Insprucker said during the broadcast. Starship may have exploded, but it still met one of the major milestones SpaceX set out for the flight: It didn’t blow up the launchpad.
The massive rocket was able to lift off successfully and didn’t explode until it was on its way to space. It’s the culmination of years of regulatory work and technological tests for SpaceX and the largest and most powerful rocket ever built.
SpaceX noted that the company will review the data from the launch to build toward its next attempt. “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability.”
Musk tweeted shortly after the 3-plus-minute flight that the company “learned a lot” and teased a “next test launch in a few months.” To be clear, there were no people on board this first attempt to reach space with Starship.
The company’s leadership has previously emphasized that SpaceX expects to fly hundreds of Starship missions before people launch on the rocket. Before the mid-flight failure, Starship achieved one key milestone: the Super Heavy booster successfully separated from the rocket, flipped and began its return to Earth.
The SpaceX rocket flew to a maximum altitude of 39 kilometers, or about 127,000 feet, before exploding according to Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell. That distance is short of the 100 kilometers mark that is internationally-recognized as the boundary of space.
The Starship rocket suffered a mid-flight failure roughly 4 minutes after its historic launch. The company said in a tweet it experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” indicating the rocket was destroyed. As a reminder, no crew were on board.
The spacecraft spun out of control before bursting into a ball of flames about four minutes into its flight, cutting the test short. In a statement on Twitter, SpaceX said, “Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation.”
During today’s 90-minute test flight, Starship was supposed to reach an altitude of about 150 miles during a journey around the globe before splashing down into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. If the rocket gets “far enough away from the launchpad before something goes wrong, then I think I would consider that to be a success,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said before the flight.
“Just don’t blow up the launchpad.” SpaceX’s Kate Tice said it was unclear what caused the rocket to come apart. She said that “teams will continue to review the data and work toward our next flight test.” Elon Musk has said the mission has about a 50 percent chance of succeeding.
If it fails, he said the company would simply try again, incorporating any lessons from the previous flight. In a statement, the company said that “with a test such as this, success is measured by how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances the development of Starship.”
SpaceX hopes the rocket will launch successfully. But the chance of an explosion is real. The rocket has never flown before, and the company has a history of blowing things up. The Federal Aviation Administration is the agency charged with protecting the public, and it requires space companies to take measures to ensure no one gets hurt in the event of an accident.
It’s the culmination of years of regulatory work and technological tests for SpaceX and the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. The company made a first go at getting this launch off the ground on Monday, but a pressure valve in the Super Heavy booster apparently froze.
The company’s teams worked to resolve a number of unidentified issues to make a second attempt possible on Thursday. SpaceX leadership has repeatedly stressed the experimental nature of the launch and said any result that involved Starship getting off the launchpad would be a success.
Fully-stacked on the Super Heavy booster, Starship stands 394 feet tall, and is about 30 feet in diameter – making it the tallest rocket ever assembled. The Super Heavy booster is what begins the rocket’s journey to space.
At its base are 33 Raptor engines, which together produce 16.7 million pounds of thrust – double the 8.8 million pounds of thrust of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which launched for the first time late last year. SpaceX is loading the Super Heavy booster with liquid oxygen and liquid methane, the propellants the company uses to fuel the rocket’s engines.
In total, the rocket is filled with more than 10 million pounds of propellant. Starship itself has six Raptor engines, with three for use while in the Earth’s atmosphere and three for operating in the vacuum of space.
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