Space Flight

SpaceX’s Starship Has a Glorious Liftoff — but Then Spins and Explodes

SpaceX’s Starship launch system lifted off on its first full-scale test flight today, rising majestically from its Texas launch pad but falling short of stage separation.

The uncrewed mission represented the most ambitious test yet for the world’s most powerful rocket — which eventually could send people to the moon and Mars, and even between spaceports on our own planet. 

Liftoff from SpaceX’s Starbase complex at Boca Chica on the South Texas coast came at 8:33 a.m. CDT (9:33 a.m. EDT). The Starship system’s Super Heavy booster, powered by 33 methane-fueled Raptor rocket engines, rose into clear skies with a deafening roar and a blazing pillar of flame.

Hundreds of SpaceX employees cheered at the company’s California headquarters, but the crowd turned quiet three minutes into the flight when the Starship upper stage failed to separate from the booster as planned. The entire rocket spun in the air as a ground-based camera watched.

A minute later, SpaceX’s flight termination system destroyed both stages of the rocket as a safety measure. “Obviously, we wanted to make it all the way through, but to get this far, honestly, is amazing,” launch commentator Kate Tice said.

Super Heavy is capable of 16.7 million pounds of thrust at liftoff — which represents roughly twice the power of NASA’s Space Launch System or the Apollo-era Saturn V rocket.

In advance of the launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he would count this test as a success as long as the launch pad wasn’t destroyed. But he and his team were hoping for more. The flight plan called for the 226-foot-tall (69-meter) Super Heavy booster to send the 164-foot-tall (50-meter) Starship second stage on a trip that would have ranged as high as 150 miles (250 kilometers) in altitude and as far as a spot in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. The Starship second stage has six Raptor engines, half of which are optimized for use in the vacuum of space.

SpaceX says both stages are meant to be reusable, and the company has gone so far as to equip the Starbase launch pads in Texas and Florida with “chopsticks” to assist in catching returning rockets. Neither stage was meant to be recovered during this test, however. SpaceX planned to have Super Heavy fall into the Gulf of Mexico after stage separation, and Starship was supposed to sink into the Pacific at the mission’s end.

No commercial payload was carried this time around. Instead, the flight’s primary objective was to provide data for fine-tuning Starship’s systems going forward. “The payload for this mission is information — information that allows us to improve the design of future Starship builds,” Musk said during a pre-launch chat session on Twitter, which he owns.

The launch webcast showed that several of the Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster were not firing during the ascent — a failure that SpaceX confirmed after the launch.

“The vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble,” the company said in a status update. “The flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and ship.” 

SpaceX said the rocket reached a maximum altitude of about 24 miles (39 kilometers) above the Gulf of Mexico.

Post-launch imagery showed extensive damage to the launch pad, including cratering beneath the launch mounting structure. Witnesses also posted photos and videos that documented damage from debris flying upward and outward from the liftoff’s blast. Some residents who lived miles away from the launch site reported that specks of debris rained down on them.

Such issues are likely to be addressed in SpaceX’s post-launch assessments and remediation efforts.

SpaceX has been using short-hop flights to test Starship prototypes since 2019, and some of those tests have ended with the prototype going up in flames. But this mission posed special challenges.

This was the first flight test of a full-scale Super Heavy booster and the integrated Super Heavy / Starship system, with more than 10 million pounds of propellant on board. Before launch, Musk acknowledged the risk of catastrophic failure along the lines of the Soviet N-1 rocket explosion in 1969, which signaled the end of the U.S.-Soviet race to the moon.

“Starship is, in some ways, more risky,” Musk said.

Because of the scale of the launch, the Federal Aviation Administration took more than 500 days to analyze the Starship program’s safety measures and potential environmental impacts. “We carefully analyzed the public safety risks during every stage of the mission and required SpaceX to mitigate those risks,” the FAA said in a statement.

A launch license valid for five years of tests was finally issued on April 14, allowing SpaceX to wrap up its preparations. Crowds gathered along the coastline at Boca Chica to witness an initial countdown on April 17, but the launch attempt was transformed into a dress rehearsal when SpaceX’s launch team couldn’t unfreeze a pressurization valve on the Super Heavy’s propulsion system in time for liftoff. The crowds returned for today’s launch.

After the launch, the FAA said there would be an investigation of the problems that arose during the test mission.

“An anomaly occurred during the ascent and prior to stage separation resulting in a loss of the vehicle.  No injuries or public property damage have been reported,” the FAA said in an emailed statement. “The FAA will oversee the mishap investigation of the Starship / Super Heavy test mission. A return to flight of the Starship / Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA determining that any system, process or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety. This is standard practice for all mishap investigations.”

Several notable customers have already signed up for Starship trips, and SpaceX is facing a challenging timeline to meet their expectations.

Jared Isaacman, the billionaire founder of the Shift4 secure payment platform, is due to command the first crewed Starship mission as part of the privately funded Polaris Program.

Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa is paying an undisclosed (but no doubt substantial) amount to have himself and a crew of eight flown on a trip around the moon as early as this year. Dennis Tito, the California investment tycoon who became the first paying passenger to visit the International Space Station in 2001, has signed up to take Starship’s second round-the-moon trip with his wife.

Meanwhile, NASA is counting on SpaceX to provide a modified version of Starship as the lander for a crewed mission to the lunar surface, scheduled for as early as 2025. In a statement distributed via Twitter, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX.

“Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward,” Nelson wrote. “Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test — and beyond.”

Starship figures prominently in SpaceX’s plans to deploy future generations of its Starlink broadband internet satellites. Musk also has talked about employing Starship to send passengers between any two points on Earth in less than an hour, to carry a million people to Mars, and to help transform humanity into a multiplanetary species.

This report has been updated with post-mission reports.

Alan Boyle

Science writer Alan Boyle is the creator of Cosmic Log, a veteran of MSNBC.com and NBC News Digital, and the author of "The Case for Pluto." He's based in Seattle, but the cosmos is his home.

Recent Posts

TESS Finds its First Rogue Planet

Well over 5,000 planets have been found orbiting other star systems. One of the satellites…

10 hours ago

There are Four Ways to Build with Regolith on the Moon

Over the last few years I have been renovating my home. Building on Earth seems…

20 hours ago

Purple Bacteria — Not Green Plants — Might Be the Strongest Indication of Life

Astrobiologists continue to work towards determining which biosignatures might be best to look for when…

2 days ago

See the Southern Ring Nebula in 3D

Planetary nebula are some of nature's most stunning visual displays. The name is confusing since…

2 days ago

Hubble Has Accidentally Discovered Over a Thousand Asteroids

The venerable Hubble Space Telescope is like a gift that keeps on giving. Not only…

2 days ago

NASA Restores Communications with Voyager 1

The venerable Voyager 1 spacecraft is finally phoning home again. This is much to the…

2 days ago