In a highly anticipated test flight, SpaceX’s colossal Starship rocket, the largest and most powerful ever constructed, took off from Texas only to explode minutes after launch. The ambitious endeavor aimed to propel humanity towards Mars.
Delayed earlier this week due to a pressurization issue, the 120-meter Starship rocket system finally launched at 8:33 am local time (2:33 pm in the UK) on Thursday. The rocket gained speed but began to spin at altitude, leading to an explosion roughly four minutes post-launch.
The rocket’s two segments – the booster and cruise vessel – seemed unable to separate properly, potentially causing the spacecraft’s failure. SpaceX had warned that the probability of success was low, emphasizing that the primary goal of the test flight was data collection, regardless of mission completion. SpaceX staff celebrated even as the rocket disintegrated.
SpaceX tweeted about the incident, stating, “As if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation.”
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 20, 2023
The groundbreaking suborbital test flight represented the first “fully stacked” trial, with the Starship cruise vessel – designed to accommodate up to 100 astronauts – mounted atop the Super Heavy booster rocket. The booster’s 33 Raptor engines supplied the immense thrust required for the test.
Spanning nearly three times the length of a passenger jet, the colossal spacecraft stands 10 meters taller than the Saturn V rocket, which transported humans to the moon in 1969.
Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder, secured approval from the Federal Aviation Administration last week, allowing the launch to proceed. The rocket’s upper and lower segments are designed for a soft, self-powered landing on Earth for reuse, which Musk claims will substantially reduce spaceflight costs compared to NASA’s offerings.
In contrast to NASA’s risk-averse approach, SpaceX is known for its willingness to accept test flight failures, as the private company benefits from understanding the causes of such incidents. SpaceX constructed its spaceport, Starbase, in Boca Chica, Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico, for rocket launches. Several additional Starships are already in production for future testing.
Musk conceived Starship (formerly called BFR, likely an acronym for Big Fucking Rocket) to facilitate human interplanetary colonization, starting with Mars. He believes this is essential to preserving humanity in the event of a cataclysmic event, such as nuclear war or an asteroid impact, that eradicates life on Earth.
SpaceX asserts that Starship, boasting a payload capacity of up to 150 tons, will enable long-duration interplanetary flights for dozens of passengers. The company has already scheduled a privately funded lunar voyage for 11 individuals this year, although the timeline now appears doubtful.
SpaceX has also revealed long-term plans to utilize Starship for commercial Earth-bound travel, with journeys from London to Tokyo in under an hour.