It was not, as they say in the space-launch business, nominal. Four minutes into Thursday’s launch of the giant SpaceX Starship, the unmanned rocket blew up at an altitude of 18 miles. The 390-foot-tall launch vehicle, the largest and most powerful anyone has ever attempted to launch into space, has long been a lynchpin of Elon Musk’s ambitions to someday colonize Mars, and its failure interrupted what had been a remarkable string of successes for SpaceX. Yet as the fireball ballooned across the sky, the mood on the ground was anything but somber, as the crowd that had gathered to watch erupted in whoops and cheers. “Congrats @SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship!” Musk tweeted in the aftermath. “Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months.”
The vehicle consists of two stages: The first, called the Super Heavy, is powered by a cluster of 33 Raptor engines and returns to Earth after each launch, and the Starship is a second stage powered by six Raptor engines and designed to soar into orbit and beyond. The whole stack together weighs some 11 million pounds — about twice as much as the Saturn V rocket that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon.
The launch had originally been scheduled for Monday but was scrubbed due to a stuck valve. The weather on Thursday looked promising, and SpaceX set a launch window beginning at 9:28 a.m. local time. At 9:33 a.m., the energetic crowd of onlookers chanted the countdown and a blossom of flame billowed from the base of the Super Heavy. At first, the rocket seemed to follow its planned trajectory, but not all was right: Five of the 33 Raptor engines were visibly dark, suggesting that they had failed to ignite and, hence, to provide thrust.
Worse was to come. Two minutes into the flight, the Starship was supposed to separate from the Super Heavy and continue to orbit while the first stage rotated and fired its rockets in the reverse direction. But that didn’t happen. As the seconds ticked by, a camera inside the rocket housing showed the Starship’s second-stage engines remaining unlit and the fairings linking the rocket’s two halves still uncleaved. The view from the ground showed the whole rocket yawing away from the direction of flight, doing a full 180, then continuing to rotate. “This does not appear to be a nominal situation,” one of the event’s announcers observed. Nine seconds later, the rocket exploded.
On the ground, the crowd of spectators oohed, then clapped, then burst into cheers — an elation that stands in marked contrast to the stony silence that has traditionally met NASA launch failures. Observers say the difference in emotional reaction reflects SpaceX’s Silicon Valley–inspired approach to the testing process. “It’s a failing-forward culture,” says space architect Phnam Bagley. “Early explosions of new rockets are actually a good thing. If everything goes well, you don’t know what’s going to go wrong next time.”
SpaceX has long taken an almost celebratory approach to its mishaps. Five years ago, it released a video titled “How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster” that showed a montage of its explosive failures set to jaunty Monty Python theme music.
The lighthearted framing is very much a product of SpaceX’s owner and public face. Musk styles himself as a cheeky bon vivant and frequently indulges his fondness for puns and numbers with racy connotations — notably, “420” and “69.” This enthusiasm has occasionally landed him in hot water — as in 2018, when he faced charges from the Securities and Exchange Commission for tweeting that he could take Tesla private for $420 per share. The statement’s hilarity was debatable, but the SEC interpreted it as straightforward securities fraud.
Did Musk’s love of naughty numbers get him in trouble with the Starship’s debut as well? It happened that the launch date was April 20 — known as “Doge Day” in honor of the joke cryptocurrency Musk has been sued for promoting. The timing may have been a coincidence, but it’s not impossible to imagine the boss pushing his engineers to meet a “hilarious” deadline they weren’t quite ready for.