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SpaceX’s Starship rocket lifts off for inaugural test flight but explodes midair

<i>Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>Spectators off South Padre Island
AFP via Getty Images
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP/Getty Images
Spectators off South Padre Island

By Jackie Wattles and Ashley Strickland, CNN

SpaceX’s Starship, the most powerful rocket ever built, took off from a launchpad in South Texas at 9:33 a.m. ET Thursday but exploded midair before stage separation.

Thursday’s launch marked the vehicle’s historic first test flight. “As if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation,” SpaceX tweeted.

The massive Super Heavy rocket booster, which houses 33 engines, lifted off and sent a massive boom across the coastal landscape as it fired to life. The Starship spacecraft, riding atop the booster, soared out over the Gulf of Mexico.

About 2½ minutes after takeoff, the Super Heavy rocket booster was scheduled to expend most of its fuel and separate from the Starship spacecraft, leaving the booster to be discarded in the ocean. The Starship was meant to use its own engines, blazing for more than six minutes, to propel itself to nearly orbital speeds.

The flight reached its highest point 24.2 miles (39 kilometers) above the ground, and the explosion occurred about four minutes after liftoff, according to SpaceX.

“The vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble,” according to an update from SpaceX. “The flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and ship.”

SpaceX said that “teams will continue to review data and work toward our next flight test.” The road and beach near the launchpad are expected to remain closed until Friday.

“An anomaly occurred during the ascent and prior to stage separation resulting in a loss of the vehicle. No injuries or public property damage have been reported,” according to a statement Thursday afternoon by the Federal Aviation Administration.

“The FAA will oversee the mishap investigation of the Starship / Super Heavy test mission. A return to flight of the Starship / Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety. This is standard practice for all mishap investigations.”

Defining success for Starship

Although it ended in an explosion, Thursday’s test met several of the company’s objectives for the vehicle.

Clearing the launchpad was a major milestone for Starship. In the lead-up to liftoff, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk sought to temper expectations, saying, “Success is not what should be expected. … That would be insane.”

“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 after the explosion.

Musk congratulated team members on “an exciting test launch” in a post-launch tweet and said they “learned a lot for next test launch in a few months.”

In a follow-up email to his employees, Musk added, “I don’t want to jinx it, but I think we are highly likely to reach orbit this year and recover the booster and ship, if not this year, certainly next year. Mars, here we come!”

SpaceX will need a new launch license from the FAA to make another attempt, but the company does not expect the process to be as laborious as securing the license for Thursday’s launch.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson took to Twitter to share his congratulations on the flight test.

“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.”

The test flight comes after years of explosive tests, regulatory hurdles and public hyping from Musk.

The company has been known to embrace fiery mishaps during the rocket development process. SpaceX maintains that such accidents are the quickest and most efficient way of gathering data, an approach that sets the company apart from its close partner NASA, which prefers slow, methodical testing over dramatic flare-ups.

Musk has talked about Starship — making elaborate presentations about its design and purpose — for years, and he frequently harps on its potential for carrying cargo and humans to Mars, though NASA also plans to use the vehicle to put its astronauts on the moon. He’s even said that his sole purpose for founding SpaceX was to develop a vehicle like Starship that could establish a human settlement on the Red Planet.

Throngs of spectators lined local beaches to catch a glimpse of Starship’s takeoff, bringing foldout chairs, children and dogs in tow. It echoed Monday’s turnout for the company’s first launch attempt, which was ultimately grounded as engineers worked to troubleshoot an issue with a valve on the Super Heavy booster.

In the area surrounding Starbase — SpaceX’s name for the Starship development site on Texas’ southernmost tip — many locals have greeted the rocket with enthusiasm. There are signs of Starship permeating the area: a model Starship in a front yard, a “Rocket Ranch” camping ground filled with diehard enthusiasts, and a billboard advertising Martian beer.

What’s next for Starship

The test flight is a small step in a sweeping project. Before Starship can complete its first mission or host astronauts, SpaceX has significant technological questions to hash out.

NASA has tapped SpaceX to provide a Starship lunar lander that would ferry astronauts from a separate spacecraft down to the moon’s surface for the Artemis III mission, which is scheduled as early as 2025. Before that mission can take off, however, SpaceX has to prove that Starship can make it to the moon — much less Mars, which is Musk’s ultimate ambition.

The sheer mass of the vehicle will force the company to refuel the spacecraft while it’s still in Earth’s orbit. More than a dozen launches — carrying nothing but propellant — may be required to give a single Starship lunar lander enough fuel to traverse the 238,900-mile (384,500-kilometer) void between Earth and the moon.

Before SpaceX can even hash out that process, it’ll also need to put Starship into orbit in the first place. Thursday’s test flight only sought to get to near orbital speeds and make a partial lap of the planet — an achievement that will have to wait for a future test.

Even after flight tests begin to prove the vehicle’s design, the Starship spacecraft must be fitted with all the necessary life support equipment astronauts will need for a journey to deep space.

NASA was not involved in planning the flight profile for this test flight or directing SpaceX on what to do, according to Lisa Hammond, NASA’s associate program manager of the Human Landing System at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

In an interview earlier this month, Hammond did not share a specific checklist of tests or flights that NASA hopes to see before Starship is entrusted with a moon landing mission.

“I would not put it with a number,” she said, adding that the Artemis II mission, slated for next year, will see humans fly atop the SLS rocket after only one uncrewed test flight.

“The confidence comes in the design, the confidence comes in the safety of the vehicle for the crew,” Hammond said.

In addition to the Artemis III mission, Starship already has some ambitious projects on its manifest. SpaceX has sold a Starship-propelled tourism trip around the moon to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. The mission, dubbed “Dear Moon,” plans to fly Maezawa and eight crewmates, including various artists from around the world.

Most of the “Dear Moon” crew was on the ground to witness Starship’s first test flight.

Karim Iliya, a photographer currently based in Iceland, described the experience of watching the flight attempt from a few miles away.

“This wave of sound just smashed into my body, and I could feel it and I could hear it and I thought: Am I really going inside that machine? It was absolutely wild,” Iliya told CNN. “It was just this feeling of joy and energy running through the crowd and through the people.”

Iliya added that the rocket explosion didn’t give him any extra nerves for his future spaceflight. He understood he was watching a prototype take flight.

But he experienced a “feeling of intensity” visiting the rocket shortly after Monday’s scrubbed launch attempt.

He said the Dear Moon crew was invited to get an up-close look at the rocket then. The vehicle was still venting.

“We heard this very loud sound. Many of us — I think — we’re ready to scramble,” Iliya said. “That’s when I realized how alive this machine is and how intense it is and will be when we actually strap ourselves in and leave the planet — which is in itself an absurd thought.”

What to know about this rocket

Development of Starship has been based at SpaceX’s privately held spaceport about 40 minutes outside Brownsville, Texas, on the US-Mexico border.

Testing began years ago with brief “hop tests” of early spacecraft prototypes. The company started with brief flights that lifted a few dozen feet off the ground before evolving to high-altitude flights, most of which resulted in dramatic explosions as the company attempted to land the prototypes upright.

One suborbital flight test in May 2021, however, ended in success.

Since then, SpaceX has also been working to get its Super Heavy booster prepared for flight. The gargantuan, 230-foot-tall (69-meter-tall) cylinder is packed with 33 of the company’s Raptor engines.

Fully stacked, Starship and Super Heavy stand about 400 feet (120 meters) tall.

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CNN’s Jackie Wattles reported from South Padre Island, Texas, while Ashley Strickland reported from Atlanta.

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