SpaceX Starship explodes after liftoff; still hailed as success

SpaceX’s Starship on Thursday became the most powerful rocket ever to fly, lifting off from the company’s launchpad in South Texas with a thunderous roar and continuing to an altitude of about 24 miles before it spun out of control and exploded over the Gulf of Mexico about four minutes into its flight.

Despite the disappointing ending, the launch attempt — the first of the Super Heavy booster and the Starship spacecraft — was hailed as a success by the company and officials at NASA as a key part of a test program that will provide valuable data as the spacecraft’s development continues.

The rocket carried no crew, and the Federal Aviation Administration said there were no reports of injuries or public property damage. Camera views from the launch site showed some damage to the area around the launchpad, with debris strewn about. It was not immediately clear how widespread the damage was or whether it would delay SpaceX’s next launch attempt.

At nearly 400 feet tall, the rocket, which NASA plans to use as part of its Artemis moon program, lifted off shortly after 9:30 a.m. Eastern. The launch appeared to go smoothly, although video appeared to show a few of the 33 first-stage engines failing to ignite or failing shortly into the flight. Still, the rocket continued to power upward, until shortly before the first and second stages were to separate — about three minutes into the flight — when the spacecraft and its booster started tumbling. Two explosions rocked the vehicle about a minute after that.

“We’re seeing from the ground cameras the entire starship stack continuing to rotate,” SpaceX principal engineer John Insprucker said during the company’s live broadcast. “We should have had separation by now. Obviously, this does not appear to be a nominal situation.”

In a statement after the flight, SpaceX said that “the vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble. … With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today that will help us improve on future flights of Starship.”

The rocket exploded when its self-destruct mechanism was triggered, SpaceX said. The system is designed to destroy the rocket before it veers off course, potentially threatening populated areas.

Before the test, SpaceX warned that an explosion — or what it calls a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” — was a likely outcome, given the size and complexity of the vehicle and the fact that it had never flown before. The vehicle is outfitted with an “automated flight termination system” that is designed to blow up the vehicle if it starts going off course.

Leading up to the launch, Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, had given the test a 50 percent chance of success and said that if the rocket gets “far enough away from the launchpad before something goes wrong, then I think I would consider that to be a success. Just don’t blow up the launchpad.”

Losing “the launchpad is really the thing we’re concerned about,” he said. “It will take us probably several months to rebuild the launchpad if we melt it.” A launch attempt on Monday was waved off because of a frozen valve.

As Starship lifted off, the crowds lining the coast on South Padre Island, a few miles from the launch site, broke into applause. SpaceX employees who had gathered shoulder to shoulder in the company’s headquarters outside of Los Angeles cheered wildly during the flight and even during the explosion, knowing that they had achieved a “successful failure” whose data will inform the next flight.

Starship is the world’s most powerful rocket and is designed with the goal of lifting large amounts of cargo and, eventually, people, into Earth orbit, sending them to the moon and, perhaps one day, Mars. Once rocket is operational, SpaceX intends to use it to launch its next-generation Starlink satellites, which beam internet signals to ground stations, providing connectivity in remote and rural areas.

How Starship could remake space exploration

NASA intends to use it as well. In 2021, the space agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use Starship as the spacecraft that would put astronauts on the lunar surface for the first human landing there since the last of the Apollo missions, in 1972. SpaceX has since won another contract, worth $1.15 billion, for a second landing.

On Twitter, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson applauded the attempt. “Congrats to @SpaceX on Starship’s first integrated flight test!” he wrote. “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!”

Starship is more powerful than NASA’s Space Launch System rocket, which flew for the first time late last year, sending the unmanned Orion spacecraft into orbit around the moon. The next flight, known as Artemis II, would send a crew of four past the moon before a human landing, which could come as soon as 2025 or 2026.

Unlike NASA’s SLS rocket, Starship is designed to be fully reusable — both the booster and the spacecraft would fly back to Earth and land precisely. On this test flight, however, both were to be discarded in the sea. The booster was to have fallen back into the Gulf of Mexico. And if everything had gone as planned, the Starship spacecraft would have flown across the globe and reentered off the coast of Hawaii.

Instead, the spacecraft failed to separate from the booster and the entire vehicle started tumbling. It was not clear what caused the failure, but Musk said on Twitter that the company would try another launch “in a few months.”

But that may depend on how much damage there is at the site. Starship’s launch mount does not have a flame diverter to direct the fire in a certain direction. Musk has said that the feature may need to be added. SpaceX said that the public road and beach that run alongside the launch site would be closed until Friday.

The fiery mishap also highlighted in dramatic fashion the risks and the stakes of potential environmental destruction, the American Bird Conservancy said.

“From our point of view, it’s good news it didn’t blow up at the pad site, but future launches could,” said the conservancy’s president, Michael Parr. The sounds, debris and fires associated with a crash could pose risks to wildlife, he said. Had an explosion taken place over the sensitive wetlands, a cleanup would further disturb the environment.

In an interview with The Post, Parr stressed that the organization is not opposed to SpaceX or space exploration but is pushing for operations to be moved elsewhere, such as to Cape Canaveral, Fla.

So far this year, SpaceX has five boosters and eight Starships in production, Kate Tice, SpaceX’s manager for quality systems engineering, said on the launch broadcast. “So we have product ready to go as soon as we’re done with this test.”

The FAA said it would oversee the mishap investigation, as is standard practice whenever a rocket fails.

“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,” the agency said.

Hamza Shaban contributed to this report.

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