Updated 3 p.m. Eastern with additional details and reactions.
COLORADO SPRINGS — SpaceX’s first integrated Starship vehicle lifted off on a long-anticipated test flight April 20, only to tumble and break apart minutes later.
The Starship vehicle lifted off from SpaceX’s Starbase test site at Boca Chica, Texas, at 9:33 a.m. Eastern. The liftoff took place after a brief hold at T-40 seconds to clear final issues pressuring the rocket’s propellant tanks.
Starship slowly lifted off from the pad and ascended. Several of the 33 Raptor engines in the Super Heavy booster appeared not to be firing in video shown on SpaceX’s webcast a little more than a minute after liftoff.
Data displayed on the webcast showed that, at T+15 seconds, three Raptor engines, two in a fixed outer ring and one in a center section capable of gimballing, were not working. A third engine in the outer ring shut down at T+40 seconds, followed by another 20 seconds later. By T+100 seconds, six engines were not operating, although one was restored a few seconds later.
According to the timeline provided by the company, the Raptor engines in Super Heavy were supposed to shut down at T+2:49, followed second later by the separation of the Starship upper stage and ignition of its six Raptor engines. Instead, the combined Starship/Super Heavy stack started to tumble as the engines in Super Heavy continued to fire. “This does not appear to be a nominal situation,” said SpaceX’s John Insprucker in the webcast.
At T+4:00, the vehicle broke apart when controllers activated the flight termination system on both the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage. Despite the failure, SpaceX employees watching the launch at the company’s Hawthorne, California, headquarters cheered, celebrating the progress made on the flight.
In a later update, SpaceX said the vehicle reached an altitude of 39 kilometers before the engine failures caused the rocket to lose altitude and 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 company stated.
The company stressed both before and immediately after launch that this flight was a test designed to collect data to improve the design of the vehicle. “This was a development test. This was the first test flight of Starship,” said Insprucker. “The goal was to gather the data and, as we said, clear the pad and get ready to go again.”
This test flight was not designed to reach orbit but instead send Starship on a long suborbital trajectory, splashing down near Hawaii 90 minutes after liftoff. Neither Starship nor Super Heavy, which would splash down in the Gulf of Mexico offshore from Boca Chica, would be recovered.
SpaceX has several other Starship and Super Heavy vehicles in various stages of development. They have already incorporated some design changes from work on this vehicle. “Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months,” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk tweeted shortly after the flight.
Despite the loss of the vehicle, SpaceX won praise from government officials and other organizations for getting Starship off the pad.
“Congrats to SpaceX on Starship’s first integrated flight test!” tweeted NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “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.”
Nelson had mentioned the upcoming launch at an April 19 hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2024 budget proposal by a House appropriations subcommittee. “That is the beginning of that commercial partner linking up with us in lunar orbit on Artemis 3,” he said, a reference to Starship’s role as a lunar lander for that mission.
Asked by the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), why SpaceX was launching from Texas rather than Cape Canaveral, Nelson said that the agency expected SpaceX to “probably” do five launches from there before shifting to a launch pad the company is building for Starship at Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. “Once they get through and get some experience, then they will bring that rocket to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center”
Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, also praised SpaceX. “Liftoff IS an incredible success! Great lessons learned,” he tweeted. “I am confident that SpaceX will quickly resolve issues and get back to the launchpad soon.”
“This flight is an important milestone and much will be learned from the engineering data,” Dan Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and a former NASA official, said in a statement. “With Starship, SpaceX is taking bold steps that are helping us accelerate the future of humans living and working off our planet. Flight tests and taking risks will lead to this future.”