SpaceX Starship Explodes After Launch


The first uncrewed test flight of SpaceX’s integrated Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket ended in a dramatic explosion shortly after launch on Thursday. While the cause off the company’s latest “rapid unscheduled disassembly” has not yet been announced, it appears as though Starship failed to separate from the rocket as planned. The vehicle hit a maximum altitude of roughly 39 kilometers (about 127,950 feet), exploding just short of four minutes after launch.

“As if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation,” SpaceX said. “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary.”

As previously reported by AVweb, SpaceX attempted the launch on Monday but scrubbed before liftoff due to a frozen valve. Company CEO Elon Musk stated via Twitter that Starship’s next test launch would take place “in a few months.” Designed for transporting crew and cargo to the Moon and eventually Mars, Starship measures 394 feet tall and is powered by 33 Raptor engines.

Video: SpaceX
Kate O'Connor
Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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  1. I cannot imagine the complexity of the plumbing system feeding cryogenic fuel to 33 separate engines. The “RUD” is disappointing, but not unexpected. One advantage of modern rocket technology is the incredible amount of telemetry the ship sends back to the ground on every aspect of the mission. It will be interesting to hear what went wrong.

    • The instrumentation has already determined the fault … full sinusoidal synchronization between the 33 engines failed due to a stuck turbo encabulator … described here:


  2. My feelings against Musk have softened considerably as of late.

    I’m glad no one was hurt and only money was lost.

    I’m sure they will learn something applicable from this and apply it in the future.

    • Frankly, I’m rather baffled why you had ‘hard’ feelings for Musk in the first place. Would you care to explain? I know he can be very ‘undiplomatic’ (and that’s putting it mildly) but this comes as no surprise to me given he’s a self-outed Aspergers sufferer. In fact, it was his complete lack of respect for ‘the norm’ that warmed me to him in the first place; the complete opposite of a slick-looking, silver-tongued salesman you could not imagine. That ‘not following the crowd’ thing has also stood him in very good stead from an engineering perspective, too. Taking a completely novel approach to a problem has worked extremely well for him, Tesla and SpaceX (not to mention his other companies).

      The BBC did a 3 part series on him a few months back called ‘The Elon Musk Show’ which I thought was going to be a complete hatchet job coming, as it did, on the heels of another (UK) Channel4 production that really *was* a (dreadful) hatchet job. The BBC’s version was actually very good (IMO) and had a lot of stuff in it that I had not seen before. You should watch it (if you can – it’s on the BBC’s web-based iPlayer but whether its available where you are, Lord knows). Given how significant Musk’s existence will come to be to history, humanity and particularly environmental protection, everyone should… ‘IMO’!

      • Martin, your assumptions that BBC is a universally recognizable acronym and that any of us would tear ourselves away from our own favorite information bubble comfort zones long enough to watch a BBC series is a tall order on your part. This might even require compartmentalizing Musk’s engineering accomplishments and lifestyle idiosyncrasies. Another tall order. Thank you for the recommendation.

      • Honestly my issues are with Tesla, not Musk personally.

        I have an autistic daughter with a genius IQ so his personality per se is not my issue.

        I am a motorhead. I enjoy cars, motorcycles, boats and airplanes. I like the sound, feel, and experience of internal combustion.

        I like the sound of my Moto Guzzi’s exhaust echoing off the canyon wall as I lean into the corners. I like the sound of a 185’s prop tips ripping the air at supersonic rotation speed on climbout from a backcountry strip. I like the whine of my twin turbo Mercedes’ V8 spooling up with a rush of acceleration.

        I don’t like Big Government and the Green Movement ‘disrupting’ the automotive industry and the role Tesla plays in it.

        I don’t like the looks, culture, or politics of electric cars in general and Tesla in particular. Take Tesla out of the equation I’m OK with Musk. Not that he cares one way or the other;-)

        I have respect for his business sense, individuality, and to a degree his engineering prowess and intelligence.

        What turned the tide with me for him is his defense of free speech and other American principles.

        • Yeah all the fun stuff. People with too much time on their hands: No, can’t have that anymore.

          I was reading a day or two ago, if we (USA) (do our part, essentially) to reduce emissions by 2050 – which will require big, widespread steps, we’ll have reduced the worldwide level by… 10%. Lol. Yeah, good luck with getting that other 90%, if you can get the 10 even.

  3. I realize I am speaking from a place of complete ignorance, but I’m really puzzled by the fact that we’re still routinely watching rockets explode on launch. The moon landings used huge rockets in 1969, which is 54 years ago. By way of comparison, the Wright brothers flew Flyer 1 at Kitty Hawk in 1903, and 54 years later USAF Major Adrian Drew flew a modified F101A at 1,207 mph (and, coincidentally on this topic, Sputnik was launched). In 1957 no-one expected to routinely see airplanes fail to take off.

    • As you have noticed, launching rockets is not much like flying airplanes.
      Also, significant spaceflight development didn’t really happen for a long time after the shuttle was designed. Imagine not developing a significantly better airplane for 30 years…

      SpaceX in particular uses a ‘hardware rich’ test program to fly early, fail fast, learn and iterate.

      This was expected. Multiple additional vehicles are almost ready to fly, though it appears the launch pad is going to need a lot of work first.

    • A saying that’s attributed to Wernher von Braun:

      “There’s a fine line between a bomb and a rocket. The finer the line, the better the rocket….”

    • Well, I wouldn’t call one failure in some 230 (since the beginning of the – working – Falcon9 programme) of actual intended orbital launches a bad record, personally. And bear in mind that – unlike any other rocket company – a large proportion of the first stages of all those launches has used the same rocket. I don’t think you quite understand just how far SpaceX has taken rocketry in the 20 very short years it has been operating.

    • Supposedly, we no longer have the skills to build those old rockets. Market forces, government, and new knowledge often conspire to make old methods into rare art forms.

  4. Better think of rockets more as dragsters than a form of transportation between A and B. The physics are much more challenging than airplanes.

  5. Keep in mind that the US rocket program has had plenty of failures. Have you not see the compilation of the last seconds of hundreds of rocket launches in the forties and fifties? The main difference was that we were in am arms race driven by the military, who were not terribly inclined to publicize the launches, much less the RUDs. These days, “U” (the general public) sits between the “R” and “D”, without much of a clue about what’s involved getting from one to the other.

    Unlike everyone else watching the grainy black-and-white TV images of the early space launches, I didn’t cheer when the vehicle cleared the gantry. I waited for the engines to shut down, and even then worried that the retros might not fire.

  6. Went to StarBase and was at the launch with my wife and words can’t describe how impressive all of it was. Musk and SpaceX are doing things that national space programs can only dream of.

    America built engines, rockets and spacecraft taking our astronauts back to space, launching thousands of Starlink internet satellites, landing on drone ships and reusing boosters and now the biggest, most powerful rocket system in history, by far. The numbers on the StarShip Heavy are staggering, 400 feet high, 11 million pounds, 30 Raptor engines, 17 million pounds of thrust, and you can basically drive right up to the launch pad and production site.

    They will get this rocket system working and fully functional just like all their other ones and continue making history. More StarShip test launches coming soon and it’s worth the trip to South Texas just to see StarBase. Godspeed Elon Musk and SpaceX.

  7. My understanding was that they destroyed it on purpose. The stages did not separate and began tumbling together out of control. You could also see there were 5 or 6 engines not working, so it probably didn’t make it to the correct altitude anyway. (purely guessing on that)
    Regardless, it was very impressive to watch on the screen. I can only imagine the sensation from being on site.

    • It’s not only Your understanding, Mr. Joe P.. It’s the true.
      The destruction of the SpaceX’s integrated Starship was ordered from the ground control after been realized that separation was not possible and the “ship” was out of control.

  8. I applaud the boldness and audacity SpaceX has demonstrated to date. It’s desperately needed in American industry and culture. But there’s a fine line between boldness and audacity versus carelessness and recklessness. When I observe an entire room full of twenty-somethings at the SpaceX headquarters cheering wildly as the rocket exploded, I makes me worry that SpaceX’s corporate culture has stepped across that line. Let’s boldly accept the risks that make sense in order to move the ball forward. But let’s not go out there and blow up hundreds of millions of dollars of hardware just for fun.

    • I know this sounds abstruse, but I have long wondered if SpaceX is blowing these things up on purpose for the publicity. If this is true, and the SpaceX staff know this, that would be a reason for their cheering when the booster exploded.

  9. 7 of the 33 engines had failed, prompting the ” rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation.” In other words, they had lost control.

    • More failure points is not a good thing. I’d be very wary to sit on top of any Rocket with 33 engines. Hopefully things will be fine tuned to produce a reliable vehicle instead of a bomb.
      I like Musk but feel that the loss of life would not deter him at all. Back when I used used to work for Robinson Helicopter in the early days, there were failures and loss of life, but the company moved forward. It is now the biggest manufacturer of Helicopters in the world and has been for decades. Even if Musk loads the ship with a dozen astronauts and experiences the worst possible failure, it will not stop him from moving forward. It’s just how progress is made.

      • Don’t look at it as 33 points of failure, but 33 redundant engines. Consider that it still flew despite the failed engines.
        It’s suspected that most of the engine failures were due to debris blasted up from the launch pad in the first few seconds.
        SpaceX is going to have to build a flame diverter to solve that

  10. Now if this was “NASA” / Govt. money/ taxpayer money $; would all be so conducive to accepting the notion of RUD & ” If you’re not breaking stuff you aren’t learning anything.”?

    • There is an enormous gulf between NASA rockets and SpaceX development rockets. The former are intended to never fail at any cost as they are ‘finished’, the latter are expected to fail along the development path.

  11. Given the audience here, I’m surprised at the lack of skepticism of Musk’s motivations, plans, and behaviors. He seems awfully willing to put poorly-tested, even dangerous products out there with a “shit happens” attitude. Just imagine the comments if NASA had done this…

    • Yes, we know how NASA does it. Spend 20 years and $20 Billion on the usual contractors (Boeing et al) to build a rocket that costs $4 billion per launch and can fly no more than once per year. The cost of Starship/Super Heavy isn’t public but it’s estimated to be less than $4 billion for the entire R&D cost.
      NASA is going to put humans on the second flight of SLS. Starship will probably fly a hundred times before humans ride it.

  12. Bizarre. Not completely surprising though, the cheering and so forth, considering it’s from people who apparently think they are going to live on Mars.