SpaceX’s first Starship orbital launch attempt ends in dramatic explosion

Starship performed "a rapid unscheduled disassembly."
Chris Young
Starship at launch (left) and the explosion (right).
Starship at launch (left) and the explosion (right).

SpaceX / YouTube  

SpaceX's first Starship flight test was a roaring, albeit explosive, success.

The fully-stacked Starship launch system lifted off for the very first time today. Though it cleared the launch pad, Starship's first orbital launch attempt ended with a dramatic explosion.

The next-generation rocket lifted off from SpaceX’s Starbase facility in South Texas at 08:33 local time (1333 GMT), on April 20. All in all, it was a successful first launch, as highlighted by the SpaceX launch team's rapturous applause soon after the massive Mars rocket blew up into pieces.

Starship performs successful first launch, falls short of orbit

It wasn’t a given that Starship would reach orbit on its first attempt. Prior to launch, Kate Tice, Quality Systems Engineering manager at SpaceX and one of the live stream narrators, said the key milestone SpaceX was looking to achieve was "clearing the launch pad" and that any other achievement would be a "bonus."

Last month, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stated that the company’s next-generation rocket had a roughly 50 percent chance of reaching orbit on its first try. “I'm not saying it will get to orbit but I am guaranteeing excitement,” Musk wrote on Twitter.

And excitement certainly describes what happened shortly after the first launch of the fully stacked Starship and Super Heavy.

Roughly three minutes after liftoff, the Starship upper stage was supposed to separate from the Super Heavy first stage. Unfortunately, that didn't happen and the full stack started to spiral and turn over on itself before finally exploding in a ball of flames.

SpaceX’s first Starship orbital launch attempt ends in dramatic explosion
Starship moments before the "rapid unscheduled disassembly."

With Starship's first flight test finished, Musk wrote on Twitter, "congrats SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months."

Does Starship flight test fireball mean failure?

Shortly after the Starship mission ended, a debate started online on whether the first flight of the massive rocket could be deemed a success or not.

SpaceX is known to take a fail fast, learn fast approach. With that context in mind, Starship's first launch was most definitely a success. As a point of reference, a series of Starship high-altitude prototype tests starting in 2019 also resulted in what SpaceX has often referred to as "unscheduled rapid disassemblies," or explosions.

As Ars Technica Senior Space Editor Eric Berger noted on Twitter, "for the layperson who sees NASA at work, which can't afford to fail, this looks like failure. But for those who know a little bit more, and about iterative design, this was a tremendous success. SpaceX has 2-3 more rockets ready to go."

SpaceX pointed out on social media soon after launch that "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's massive Mars rocket flies for the first time

Starship has long been slated as a massive disruptor for the space industry, and it was an epic sight to behold the fully-stacked launch system take to the skies for the first time.

The enormous launch system is the largest rocket ever built, standing at 394 feet tall (120 meters). It has also surpassed NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) to become the world's most powerful rocket. While SLS produced roughly 9.5 million lbs of thrust at liftoff during the Artemis I moon mission, Starship is estimated to have created 17 million lbs of thrust at launch thanks to the 33 Raptor Engines attached to the Super Heavy first stage.

Not only is Starship the most powerful rocket in the world, it will also be fully reusable. That will dramatically lower the cost of successive launches, making human spaceflight to Mars possible — the main reason Elon Musk founded SpaceX back in 2002.

Though the exact cause of the anomaly that led to Starship exploding is not yet known, Kate Tice pointed out during the live stream that 3 Raptor engines don't appear to have fired up. Stay posted for more updates as we learn more about Starship's first orbital launch attempt.

This was a breaking news piece and it was updated as new information emerged. You can watch the launch live stream, as it happened, below.

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