SpaceX's huge Starship rocket, the most powerful ever built, blasted off on an unpiloted maiden flight Thursday and successfully flew for more than two minutes before tumbling out of control and exploding in a cloud of flaming debris.
"Starship just experienced what we call a rapid unscheduled disassembly, or a RUD, during ascent," said SpaceX engineer John Insprucker, serving as a launch commentator on the company's webcast.
"Now this was a development test, this was the first test flight of Starship, and the goal is to gather the data and as we said, clear the pad and get ready to go again. So you never know exactly what's going to happen, but as we promised, excitement is guaranteed! Starship gave us a rather spectacular end to what was truly an incredible test."
Tweeted SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who monitored launch from the SpaceX control center in Boca Chica, Texas: "Congrats @SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months."
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 20, 2023
Thursday's launch was the second attempt, after aon Monday due to a frozen valve.
Thrilling thousands of area residents, tourists and journalists looking on from nearby South Padre Island, the 33 methane-fueled Raptor engines powering the Super Heavy first stage roared to life at 9:30 a.m. EDT, two minutes later than planned because of minor technical snags.
The engines quickly throttled up to 16 million pounds of thrust — twice the power of the current record holder, NASA's SLS moon rocket — and the gargantuan rocket majestically climbed away from SpaceX's "Starbase" launch facility.
With its engines gulping some 40,000 pounds of propellant per second, the rocket initially climbed straight up and then gracefully tilted over onto an easterly trajectory toward the Florida Straits.
But on-screen graphics in the SpaceX webcast showed three of the 33 Raptor engines had either shut down moments after liftoff or never ignited in the first place — two in an outer ring of 20 fixed Raptors and one of the 13 central steerable engines. Three more outer engines shut down over the next minute and 20 seconds or so.
One minute and 55 seconds after liftoff, the rocket's exhaust plume suddenly changed, becoming distinctly asymmetrical, indicating a major malfunction of some sort. The rocket soon appeared to begin precessing about its long axis like a toy top slowing down.
The first stage engines were expected to shut down two minutes and 45 seconds after launch and a SpaceX controller could be heard verifying the shutdown command. But the first and second stages never appeared to separate and a few seconds before the four-minute mark, the rocket exploded.
At SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California, a throng of company engineers at first gave a collective sigh, then erupted in cheers and applause.
"There as you saw, as we promised, an exciting end to the Starship inaugural integrated test flight!" exclaimed launch commentator Kate Tice.
Maximum altitude was just over 24 miles and maximum velocity was about 1,400 mph. The vehicle had fallen to about 18 miles altitude when its automatic destruct system triggered explosives in both stages.
"At 8:33 a.m. CT, Starship successfully lifted off from the orbital launch pad for the first time," SpaceX said on its webpage. "The vehicle cleared the pad and beach as Starship climbed to an apogee of ~39 km over the Gulf of Mexico — the highest of any Starship to-date.
"The vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble. The flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and ship. As is standard procedure, the pad and surrounding area was cleared well in advance of the test, and we expect the road and beach near the pad to remain closed until tomorrow."
The Federal Aviation Administration said the agency would oversee a mishap investigation.
"A return to flight of the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle (will be) based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety."
What the mishap means for SpaceX and NASA
During a Twitter Spaces call with subscribers Sunday, Musk repeatedly downplayed expectations.
"Starship is the biggest rocket ever made," he said. "It's over twice the thrust of a Saturn 5, the Saturn 5 moon rocket, which is largest rocket ever to get to orbit, it's roughly twice the mass. So, we've got 33 engines on the booster, we've got six engines on the upper stage of the ship. It's a lot of engines.
"So I guess I would just like to set expectations low. If we get far enough away from the launch pad before something goes wrong, then I think I would consider that to be a success. Just don't blow up the launch pad!"
Musk says the Starship, made up of the Super Heavy first stage and a second stage that's also (confusingly) called Starship, is the key to the company's future.
While SpaceX's hugely successful Falcon 9 rocket now dominates the international commercial launch market, it is only partially reusable. The rocket's first stage has now carried out 186 successful landings, but the upper stage is lost.
In contrast, the much more powerful Starship, capable of lifting 100 tons to low-Earth orbit, is designed to be fully reusable. The Super Heavy is designed to fly back to its launch pad, either in Boca Chica or at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and descend to touchdown, captured by two huge robotic arms on the launch gantry dubbed "chopsticks."
Starships are designed to fly themselves to touchdowns anywhere landing pads are available as well as touchdowns on the moon or, eventually, Mars.
But for the vehicle's first integrated test flight, no such recoveries were planned. The goal was to collect flight data all the way down to "hard" splashdowns in the Gulf of Mexico and, for the upper stage, the Pacific Ocean.
SpaceX failed to meet those objectives Thursday, but just getting the Super Heavy off the ground and out of the dense lower atmosphere marked a major milestone for the California rocket builder.
NASA, which is paying SpaceX billions to build a variant of the Starship upper stage todown to the lunar surface in the next two to three years. also was encouraged.
"Congrats to @SpaceX on Starship's first integrated flight test!" NASA Administrator Bill Nelson tweeted. "Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward. Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test-and beyond."
But it will not be easy.
To send a Starship to the moon, SpaceX must first launch it to low-Earth orbit where a succession of other Starships will have to rendezvous, dock and autonomously refuel the moon-bound ship so it can blast out of Earth orbit and head for deep space.
NASA's contract requires one unpiloted lunar test flight before astronauts will make a landing attempt. Getting all that done by the end of NASA's official 2025 target sounds like science fiction, but agency officials are hopeful SpaceX can pull it off.
It's not known how many Starship test flights are planned before SpaceX will be ready to launch paying customers. NASA's moon program aside, at least three all-civilian missions have been booked to date.
Billionaire Jared Isaacman, who charted theto low Earth orbit in 2019, plans to be aboard for the first piloted orbital flight of a Starship as part of his Polaris Dawn program.
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who paid the Russians for a visit to the International Space Station in 2021, also has chartered a Starship flight — "Dear Moon" — to carry him, an assistant and 10 artists and influencers on a privately funded around-the-moon voyage this year or next.
A third civilian Starship flight carrying 12 passengers, including space station veteran Dennis Tito and his wife, also has been booked. Tito paid the Russians an estimated $20 million for a visit to the International Space Station in 2001 and says he can't wait to get back into space and share the experience with his wife.
It's not known what SpaceX might be charging for a privately chartered Starship flight.