The largest and most powerful rocket ever built took flight. Until it didn’t.
SpaceX’s Starship was lofted into the air over the Gulf of Mexico by its Super Heavy rocket booster this morning, passing through the highest point of stress on the vehicle during flight.
The silver spacecraft was approximately 39 kilometers above the Earth when something went wrong. Instead of seeing the two stages separate and Starship continue on its way, observers saw the vehicle begin to tumble before it burst apart.
SpaceX said afterward that it had activated a self-destruct system onboard both the booster and the Starship.
It’s not clear what precisely went wrong; SpaceX will begin a forensic investigation using data collected by on-board sensors and ground cameras to isolate what happened. A still from the launch live stream that showed the bottom of the rocket does offer at least one clue: Perhaps five of the Raptor engines on the rocket booster failed or simply didn’t ignite.
SpaceX engineers said, though, that simply seeing the vehicle fly clear of the launch tower (which Starship did) would be considered a victory.
Starship’s test flight is a major milestone for SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who has been discussing heavy-lift rockets for more than a decade, and who unveiled the original plans for this vehicle in 2017. SpaceX has spent billions of dollars of private capital alongside similar funding from the US Air Force and NASA to develop this vehicle.
Still, expectations were low: The first flight of any rocket is likely to go wrong, and this is an unusually complex machine, with the largest number of rocket engines ever fired by a launch vehicle.
Musk had hoped for an orbital test flight as recently as last fall, before it could be scheduled this month. The test flight wasn’t intended to put the vehicle into a stable path around Earth; instead, Starship was set only to fly into space, reaching a near-orbital trajectory with an expected peak of 146 miles.
SpaceX had hoped to see the enormous booster stage return to make a controlled landing in the Gulf of Mexico, even as Starship itself flew more than 3,600 miles to an ocean landing site in the Pacific near Hawaii.
The test flight was designed to show SpaceX engineers what their vehicle can do. Can all 33 of the booster’s engines ignite on time and safely carry the vehicle into the sky? Can the stages successfully separate mid-flight? Can the booster safely reenter the atmosphere and return to Earth? Will Starship be able to ignite its own six engines, fly to Hawaii, and splash down gently in one piece?
If SpaceX can eventually answer all these questions to satisfaction, Starship is widely awaited by a number of customers. Astrophysicists think its capacious cargo bay can bring powerful new telescopes into space, NASA wants to use it to land astronauts on the Moon, entrepreneurs are dreaming up business plans with giant space stations, and Musk wants to launch a new generation of larger Starlink satellites—and, of course, plot a journey to Mars.
One layman’s measure of the risk involved with today’s test: The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses rocket launches, is requiring the company have $500 million of liability insurance in case of problems during the flight.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.