SpaceX Starship explodes during Herculean attempt to blast into space

Despite the blowup, the first flight marks a milestone achievement for commercial spaceflight.
By Elisha Sauers  on 
Starship exploding over ocean
SpaceX's Starship rocket exploded in a fiery blast over the ocean during its first flight test Thursday, April 20, 2023. Credit: SpaceX / YouTube / Screenshot

SpaceX's first attempt at launching its enormous, powerful Starship on an uncrewed test flight in space exploded in a fiery blast over the Gulf of Mexico as it tried to reach orbit Thursday.

Starship is a super-heavy-lift rocket and spacecraft, built to carry immense cargo and astronauts into deep space. The 400-foot-tall stainless steel skyscraper has about twice as much thrust as NASA's mega moon rocket that flew in space for the first time five months ago and is fueled with 10 million pounds of liquid methane and oxygen.

SpaceX is not immune to failures, and billionaire founder Elon Musk hasn't parsed words about the odds for the rocket to work during a major test flight.

"There's a lot of risk associated with this first launch, so I would not say that it is likely to be successful," he said during a video conference with a National Academies panel in 2021. "But I think we will make a lot of progress."

During the test flight, the colossal booster was supposed to separate from the rocket about three minutes after liftoff from SpaceX's launch site in South Texas close to the Mexican border, then drop into the Gulf of Mexico. The ship would fly in space around Earth at an altitude of over 150 miles, then splash down off the Hawaiian coast about 1.5 hours later.

Instead, the rocket never separated and continued to flip. Some debris plummeted into the ocean after it exploded on its descent, just four minutes after liftoff. You can watch the ordeal, from ignition to explosion, here, starting at 44:54:

With the spacecraft flying empty and exploding over the ocean, no people appeared to be harmed by the spectacular blast. Immediately after the crash, SpaceX referred to the incident on Twitter as a "rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation."

"We cleared the (launch) tower, which honestly, was our only hope," said Kate Tice, a quality systems engineering manager for SpaceX, during the live launch broadcast.

Thunderous applause sounded from employees watching the test within Starbase, cheering for the accomplishment, despite the loss of the rocket.

Starship soaring during its first flight test
SpaceX's Starship soars through the sky during its first flight test on Thursday, April 20, 2023. Credit: SpaceX / YouTube

Thursday's orbital flight test was supposed to be a crucial demonstration of hardware NASA will depend on to get humans back on the moon in the next few years. The space agency has a $4 billion contract with SpaceX to use Starships to land astronauts on the moon during Artemis III and IV, two upcoming missions that could come as early as 2025 and 2028, respectively. As part of the deal, the company will need to conduct a successful uncrewed test flight to the moon beforehand.

NASA administrator Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on the bold effort Thursday, stating that great achievements through history have demanded "some level of calculated risk."

The next try at the launch pad will likely happen in a few months, Musk said in a tweet.

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The disastrous test comes three days after SpaceX waived off its first attempt Monday, citing a pressure issue in the first stage of the rocket. The team then seamlessly transitioned launch operations into a countdown rehearsal and stopped the clock just prior to ignition. After an investigation, engineers determined the problem was a frozen pressure valve. SpaceX officials later announced they'd be ready to try again Thursday, April 20.

SpaceX Starship clearing the launch tower
SpaceX Starship's first flight test ended abruptly Thursday, April 20, 2023, unable to reach orbit as planned. Credit: SpaceX

Many experts hoped for success but braced for failure.

"The nation needs that big rocket," said Wayne Hale, who used to run launches for NASA's Space Shuttle, in a tweet on Sunday. "But having experienced first time rocket launches before, I’m keeping expectations in check."

When SpaceX launched partial prototypes of Starship to practice landing in late 2020 and early 2021, several exploded or crashed in fiery blasts. Musk often appeared unfazed by these disasters, stating after one suborbital flight test explosion, for instance, "We got all the data we needed."

One finally succeeded in returning to the ground without blowing up — flying about six miles up in the sky — in May 2021.

This January, the company stacked the jumbo rocket at its launch pad, then loaded it with fuel for a dress rehearsal. SpaceX said the test, a key practice run for any new rocket, was successful.

Shortly thereafter, the team disassembled Starship for a test fire of the booster's 33 Raptor engines. Musk said in a tweet that 31 of the 33 engines fired for the full duration of the ground test — "still enough engines to reach orbit."

SpaceX kept the flight test tightly controlled and provided little notice of the launch — a stark reminder of the differences between NASA and private industry. The Federal Aviation Administration granted SpaceX its license for the flight Friday, with the company announcing it would try to launch just three days later on Monday.

Mashable, along with other media outlets, tried to receive credentials in advance to cover the historic event from the private company's spaceport in South Texas, known as Starbase. That request was denied, with SpaceX citing "limited space" in an email Friday evening. It's unclear how many journalists were offered the opportunity: SpaceX did not respond to Mashable's request for the number of journalists invited.

Musk's ultimate vision is to use a fleet of Starships to send 1 million people to Mars by 2050.

"Elon Musk is making noise about going to Mars, and he never achieves his plans exactly, but he tends to accomplish what he sets out to do," said Dale Thomas, deputy director of the University of Alabama in Huntsville's Propulsion Research Center, referring to the founder's ambitious timelines in an interview with Mashable in January. "That's like the whole Starship thing. They've been trying to do that first test flight of Starship for about two years."

This story has been updated with more information about the Starship test launch.

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Elisha Sauers

Elisha Sauers is the space and future tech reporter for Mashable, interested in asteroids, astronauts, and astro nuts. In over 15 years of reporting, she's covered a variety of topics, including health, business, and government, with a penchant for FOIA and other public records requests. She previously worked for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia, and The Capital in Annapolis, Maryland, now known as The Capital-Gazette. She's won numerous state awards for beat reporting and national recognition(opens in a new tab) for narrative storytelling. Send space tips and story ideas to [email protected](opens in a new tab) or text 443-684-2489. Follow her on Twitter at @elishasauers(opens in a new tab)

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