SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket exploded Thursday after its maiden launch, a blow to Elon Musk’s company and its effort to build a spacecraft capable of flying to Mars.
The nearly 400-foot-tall rocket, the most powerful ever launched, lifted off from its base along the Gulf Coast in South Texas at around 8.30 a.m. local time. It rose in a ball of flame from its 33 Raptor engines and rose to an altitude of about 40 km before falling back towards Earth and exploding.
Musk, who was at the SpaceX control center for the launch, had spent the day before toning down expectations for the giant rocket and warning that it was unlikely to complete all the stages of its first attempted space flight.
The unmanned rocket was due to reach orbit as part of a 90-minute flight that would see it splash down on the coast of Hawaii. The flight was going to plan for the first three and a half minutes until the planned separation of the first stage boosters.
After the rocket flipped over, part of a planned maneuver to prepare for the reusable booster’s return to Earth, the first stage failed to separate and the Starship fell back before exploding.
“Congratulations to the @SpaceX team on the exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months,” wrote Musk on Twitter.
“It was a partial success, it was not a major blow,” said Laura Forzik, a former NASA official and now a space consultant at Astralytic. “The most important part was that it launched – that’s quite an achievement for a new rocket, especially one as complex as Starship.”
The launch occurred three days after the first launch attempt was called off at the last minute due to problems with fuel pressure in the rocket’s main booster.
Although designed to meet Musk’s goal of reaching Mars and turning humanity into a multi-planetary species, the Starship rocket could change the economics of space flight much sooner and much closer to home.
Capable of carrying up to 100 tons into low Earth orbit, Starship could greatly reduce the cost of getting satellites into orbit. It is also scheduled to participate in NASA’s mission to return astronauts to the Moon later this decade.