SpaceX’s Starship—a spacecraft that might one day transport people to Mars—has completed its first integrated launch, but made it only a few minutes into its highly-anticipated debut long-distance flight.
Just four minutes after liftoff from the company’s launch site in Boca Chica in southern Texas, when the Starship stage was supposed to separate from the Super Heavy rocket, both the stage and rocket experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly”—a euphemism that Elon Musk and his SpaceX colleagues sometimes use for a rocket explosion.
This test flight aimed to go almost orbital. The ship was supposed to fly to an altitude of 146 miles and make most of a lap around the Earth. The Super Heavy rocket was planned to splash down off the Texas coast soon after launch, and the Starship vehicle would have splashed down at the end of its trip 90 minutes later, off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii.
But SpaceX hails the flight as a success, and an opportunity to improve Starship for future tests. “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 tweeted soon after the explosion.
And the crowd at SpaceX’s Starbase in Texas, which cheered enthusiastically throughout the countdown, didn’t seem to mind the deviation from plan, continuing to cheer and clap even as the malfunction became evident and the Starship stack began to spin instead of separate, and then burst into plumes of white smoke. “Everything after clearing the tower was icing on the cake,” said SpaceX commentator Kate Tice. “As we promised, an exciting end to the Starship inaugural integrated test flight.”
A lot has been riding on this 390-foot rocket. SpaceX officials, especially CEO and cofounder Elon Musk, have made frequent bold claims of wanting to use Starship to make humanity multi-planetary. NASA’s also keeping a close eye on this test flight, which has been delayed multiple times since 2021, as it could determine whether SpaceX can deliver on its contracts to provide Starship moon-landers to the space agency by 2025 for the third and fourth Artemis missions. The US Federal Aviation Administration’s watching, too, to ensure public safety in the launch site region, following a lengthy review of the potential hazards of SpaceX’s Starship program.
SpaceX revealed few details of the launch before this week, and the company did not respond to WIRED’s media requests. But there were some clues it was imminent: The FAA included the launch in their operations plan advisory, with backup dates through April 22. And officials in Cameron County, Texas, announced last week that Boca Chica Beach and the local road, State Highway 4, would be closed on April 17, with the following two days as possible backups.
However, until the afternoon of April 14, when the FAA granted SpaceX its critical launch license, it wasn’t even clear that the massive spacecraft would get the green light. Since the fall of 2021, the FAA, which sets the rules for launch and reentry, has been conducting a thorough environmental review of SpaceX’s launch and test operations in Texas. Last June, the agency required the company to address some 75 issues to minimize air and water pollution, harms to local communities, and threats to plants and animals in the neighboring wildlife refuge and on the shore.