The SpaceX spaceship – a spaceship that could one day transport humans to Mars – has completed its first integrated launch, but only made minutes to its much-anticipated long-haul debut flight.
Just four minutes after liftoff from the company’s Boca Chica, South Texas launch site, when the Starship stage was scheduled to be separated from the Super Heavy rocket, both the stage and rocket underwent a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” — a Euphemism that Elon Musk and his SpaceX colleagues sometimes use for a rocket explosion.
This test flight should work nearly orbital. The ship was to fly to an altitude of 146 miles and make the most of one circuit around the world. The Super Heavy rocket was scheduled to land off the Texas coast shortly after launch, and the Starship craft would have crashed off the coast of Kauai, Hawaii, at the end of its journey 90 minutes later.
But SpaceX hailed the flight as a success and an opportunity to improve Starship for future testing. “In a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX attempts to make life multiplanetary,” SpaceX tweeted shortly after the explosion.
And the crowd at SpaceX’s Texas starbase, who cheered enthusiastically during the countdown, didn’t seem to mind the deviation from plan, continuing to cheer and clapping even as the malfunction became apparent and the spacecraft’s stack began spinning instead to separate, and then they explode in clouds of white smoke. “Everything after clearing the tower was icing on the cake,” said SpaceX commentator Kate Tice. “As we promised, an exciting end to Starship’s first integrated test flight.”
A lot has ridden on this 390-foot rocket. SpaceX officials, particularly CEO and co-founder Elon Musk, have frequently made bold claims of wanting to use Starship humanity multiplanetary. NASA is also closely watching this test flight, which has been delayed multiple times since 2021, as it could determine if SpaceX can fulfill its contracts to deliver Starship lunar landers to the space agency by 2025 for the third and fourth Artemis missions. The US Federal Aviation Administration is also watching to ensure public safety in the launch site region after conducting a lengthy review of the potential dangers of SpaceX’s Starship program.
SpaceX revealed few details of the launch before this week, and the company didn’t respond to WIRED’s media inquiries. But there were some indications it was imminent: The FAA included the launch in its operational plan recommendation, with backup data through April 22. And officials in Cameron County, Texas, announced last week that Boca Chica Beach and the local road, State Highway 4, would close on April 17, with the following two days as possible backups.
However, it wasn’t even clear that the giant spacecraft would get the green light until the afternoon of April 14, when the FAA granted SpaceX the crucial launch license. Since fall 2021, the FAA, which sets the rules for launch and re-entry, has been conducting a thorough environmental review of SpaceX’s launch and test operations in Texas. Last June, the agency asked the company to address about 75 issues to minimize air and water pollution, damage to local communities, and threats to plants and animals in the neighboring nature reserve and coastline.