SpaceX’s Starship mega-rocket suffered a catastrophic explosion during its first-ever launch attempt.
SpaceX's Starship mega-rocket suffered a catastrophic explosion during its first-ever launch attempt.
Starship, Elon Musk’s highly anticipated rocket, met a fiery fate during its inaugural attempt to launch into space.
During its inaugural attempt to enter orbit on Thursday 20, April 2023, SpaceX’s Starship, the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, exploded in a fiery blaze, adding to the rocket’s already eventful history of explosions.
The success of Elon Musk’s ambitious space exploration plans relies heavily on the Starship, which boasts the distinction of being the tallest, most potent, and fully reusable rocket ever launched.
Musk established SpaceX with the ultimate aim of making space travel affordable enough to establish a permanent human colony on Mars, and Starship is the key to accomplishing that goal.
Sitting atop its stainless steel Super Heavy booster, this Starship — called Ship 24 — stood nearly 400 feet tall at the company’s freshly licensed orbital launchpad in Boca Chica, Texas on Thursday morning.
At 8:33 a.m. Central Time, the giant booster’s array of 33 truck-sized Raptor engines roared to life, heaving itself off the ground. This was the first time Starship and Super Heavy flew together.
Everything went according to plan until 2 minutes and 49 seconds into the flight, when Starship was supposed to separate from the Super Heavy booster and continue into space. That didn’t happen. Instead, the rocket and its booster tumbled through the air, falling back toward Earth.
“We should have had separation by now. Obviously this is, uh, does not appear to be a nominal situation,” SpaceX announcer and engineer John Insprucker said on the company’s livestream.
A hush fell over the control room at SpaceX’s facilities, where Musk himself was watching, until the tumbling rocket exploded in a fireball.
“Starship just experienced what we call a rapid unscheduled disassembly,” Insprucker said.
Watch the video from the moment things went wrong:
It’s not yet clear what caused the issue, though mission managers said that four of the booster’s Raptor engines were not firing during flight.
“We cleared the [launch] tower, which honestly was our only hope,” Kate Tice, a SpaceX engineering manager, added on the broadcast.
SpaceX was planning for the rocket to reach space, spend an hour at orbital heights, and return to splash down in one piece in the Pacific Ocean, north of the Hawaiian islands.
Starship didn’t reach those heights, but it did beam back this stunning photo before the incident.
“With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary,” SpaceX said on Twitter, as Musk congratulated the company on “an exciting test launch.”
Elon Musk guaranteed excitement, not success
The biggest concern for Musk would be if Starship “fireballed” and melted the launch pad, he said during a Twitter Spaces session on Sunday. Musk said such an incident would melt the steel and damage the launch pad, which would take SpaceX several months to rebuild.
Musk had estimated about a 50% chance of success, hinting that it could explode like previous low-flying prototypes.
“I’m not saying it will get to orbit, but I am guaranteeing excitement,” Musk said in an interview at the Morgan Stanley Conference on March 7, adding: “Won’t be boring!”
This is likely not the end of Starship.
Musk previously said that SpaceX is building multiple Starship rockets to launch this year. Musk estimated that there’s about an 80% chance one of them will reach orbital heights.
Starship could revolutionize spaceflight, once SpaceX figures out how to fly it
Starship’s size, strength, and full reusability are the cornerstones of SpaceX’s mission to reduce the cost of spaceflight.
Once fully operational, Starship will be able to carry up to 150 metric tonnes (165 US tons) to space, according to SpaceX. That jumps to 250 metric tonnes (275 tons) if the company forgoes reusability and discards the spaceship, Starship, when the mission is done.
To put that in perspective, the most powerful operational rocket right now is SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which carries up to 70 tons to low-Earth orbit.
No rocket system has ever achieved full reusability. SpaceX has already mastered reusing the boosters on its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, which land safely back on Earth after launching payloads to orbit. But their upper stages are discarded after launch.
Starship-Super Heavy promises to return both parts to Earth, if the spaceship and the booster can fly and land without blowing up.
Starship alone has already flown 12 miles high and landed back on Earth in one piece — after four attempts ended in explosion.
Safely landing both rocket stages is a new level of engineering complexity that’s never been done before, Musk said at the Morgan Stanley conference in March.
“It’ll probably take us a couple more years to achieve full and rapid reusability,” Musk said at the time, adding that reusability was “the profound breakthrough that is needed to extend life beyond Earth.”
Starship could bring NASA back to the moon
Explosion aside, Starship’s first orbital launch is also an important stepping stone on the way back to the moon.
Though NASA’s SLS rocket is meant to be the workhorse for its new Artemis moon program, the agency has enough faith in SpaceX to tag Starship for a crucial part of its upcoming missions: returning astronauts to the lunar surface.
The agency has awarded SpaceX $4 billion to turn the spaceship into a reliable moon-landing vehicle.
SLS is supposed to take astronauts to the moon’s orbit, but Starship is the vehicle NASA has chosen to carry people down to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972. That mission, called Artemis III, could happen sometime this decade.
Later, Starship could support NASA’s construction of a permanent base on the moon.
Musk’s ultimate goal is much bigger: Eventually, the billionaire has said he aims to build 1,000 Starships to fly 100,000 people to Mars per year, build a city there, and make humans the first multi-planetary species in Earth’s history.