The biggest and most powerful rocket built ever took to the skies. It was a great rocket, until it wasn't.
SpaceX's Starship, a vehicle that is capable of carrying up to 2,000 passengers, was lifted into the air by its Super Heavy booster over the Gulf of Mexico today. The rocket passed through the point of greatest stress for the vehicle.
When something went wrong, the silver spacecraft was about 39 kilometers above Earth. Starship continued on its journey, but instead of the two stages separating, observers saw it begin to tumble and then burst into pieces.
SpaceX announced after the incident that a self destruction system had been activated on both the Starship and the booster.
SpaceX will conduct a forensic analysis using data from on-board sensors as well as ground cameras. It is not yet clear exactly what went wrong. One clue is revealed in a still image from the live launch stream, which shows the rocket's bottom. Perhaps five Raptor engines failed to ignite or did not work.
SpaceX engineers, however, said that even if the vehicle flew clear of the tower (as Starship did), it would still be considered a success.
Elon Musk's Starship test flight marks a significant milestone for SpaceX. He has been talking about heavy-lift rockets since more than a year ago and unveiled his original plans for the vehicle in 2017. SpaceX spent billions in private funding, along with similar funding from NASA and the US Air Force to develop this vehicle.
Even so, the expectations were low. The first rocket flight is always a risky affair, and this launch vehicle is unusually complex, with more rocket engines than any other.
Musk hoped to schedule an orbital test in the fall of last year, but it was not until this month that it became possible. Starship wasn't meant to be put on a stable orbit around Earth. Instead, the test flight was intended to reach a near-orbital path with a peak expected of 146 miles.
SpaceX hoped that the huge booster stage would return for a controlled land in the Gulf of Mexico. Starship, on the other hand, flew over 3,600 miles in order to reach an ocean landing site near Hawaii in the Pacific.
SpaceX engineers wanted to see what their vehicle could do. Can the 33 engines of the booster ignite safely and on time to lift the vehicle up into the air? Can the stages separate successfully mid-flight? Can the booster safely enter the atmosphere and return Earth? Starship will be able ignite its six engines and fly to Hawaii before splashing down in one piece.
Starship will be eagerly awaited if SpaceX is able to satisfactorily answer these questions. NASA is planning to use Starship to land astronauts at the Moon. Entrepreneurs are imagining business plans that include giant space stations. Astrophysicists believe its large cargo bay could bring powerful telescopes into space. Musk also wants to launch larger Starlink satellites and plot a trip to Mars.
A simple way to measure the risks involved in today's rocket test is that the Federal Aviation Administration (which licenses rocket launches) requires the company to have a $500 million liability insurance policy, just in case there are any problems during the flight.
This article has been updated to include additional reporting.