SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft exploded a few minutes after liftoff during an uncrewed test flight from South Texas on Thursday. This was a crucial step in Elon Musk’s development of a rocket vessel to eventually take humans to the moon and Mars. The flight test was the first for Starship mounted atop the company’s new Super Heavy rocket.
The two-stage rocket ship made it less than halfway to the edge of space, climbing to just under 25 miles (40 km). Even though the spacecraft achieved the primary objective of getting off the ground at liftoff despite some of its engines failing, the mission fell short of reaching several objectives. The plan was for 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.
SpaceX said in a statement afterward that 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.” SpaceX’s founder, chief executive, and chief engineer Elon Musk had appeared eager to temper expectations in remarks made Sunday that downplayed the odds of a successful first flight.
NASA chief Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on Twitter, saying that “every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward.” The next Starship test launch is expected to be in a few months, according to Musk on Twitter. SpaceX officials on the webcast hailed the liftoff as a welcome accomplishment.
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. Still, even a textbook test flight would have by design ended with crash landings of both portions of the spacecraft at sea. 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.