SpaceX’s latest rocket, Starship, exploded and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico only four minutes after its launch on Thursday. The rocket carried no people or satellites, but it was the first test flight of the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built. The nearly 400-foot Starship was expected to take a round-the-world trip from the southern tip of Texas, near the Mexican border.
SpaceX later stated that multiple engines on the 33-engine booster were not firing correctly as the rocket ascended, causing it to lose altitude and begin tumbling. The rocket was intentionally destroyed by its self-destruct system, exploding and plummeting into the water.
Throngs of spectators watched the launch from South Padre Island, several miles away from the Boca Chica Beach launch site, which was off-limits. As Starship lifted off with a thunderous roar, the crowd screamed, “Go, baby, go!”
In the weeks leading up to the flight, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk gave 50-50 odds that the spacecraft would reach orbit. He stressed that clearing the launch tower and not blowing up the pad would be a win. “You never know exactly what’s going to happen,” said SpaceX live stream commentator and engineer John Insprucker. “But as we promised, excitement is guaranteed and Starship gave us a rather spectacular end.”
Despite the abbreviated flight, congratulations poured in from NASA chief Bill Nelson and others in the space industry. Retired Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted, “Huge accomplishment, huge lessons, onwards to the next attempt.”
“It fell somewhere between a small step and their hoped-for giant leap, but it still represents significant progress toward a reusable super-heavy lift rocket,” said University of Chicago’s Jordan Bimm, a space historian.
At 394 feet and nearly 17 million pounds of thrust, Starship easily surpasses NASA’s moon rockets—past, present, and future. NASA successfully launched its new 322-foot moon rocket last November on a test flight, sending the empty Orion capsule around the moon.
SpaceX intends to use Starship to send people and cargo to the moon and eventually Mars. NASA has reserved a Starship for its next moonwalking team, and rich tourists are already booking lunar flybys.
Despite the failed attempt, “it was worth it,” said Jessica Trujillo, the mother of 13-year-old Elizabeth Trujillo who skipped school to watch the launch from the beach with her family. “Just hearing and seeing the view, the excitement of the crowd, it was priceless.”