Elon Musk’s SpaceX on Thursday successfully launched its next-generation Starship cruise vessel for the first time atop the company’s powerful new Super Heavy rocket in an uncrewed test flight that ended minutes later with the vehicle exploding in the sky.
The two-stage rocket ship, standing taller than the Statue of Liberty at 394 feet (120 metres) high, blasted off from the company’s Starbase spaceport east of Brownsville, Texas, for what SpaceX hoped, at best, would be a 90-minute debut flight into space but just shy of Earth orbit.
A live SpaceX webcast of the liftoff showed the rocket ship rising from the launch tower into the morning sky as the Super Heavy’s Raptor engines roared to life in a ball of flame and billowing clouds of exhaust and water vapor.
But less than four minutes into the flight, the upper-stage Starship failed to separate as designed from the lower-stage Super Heavy, and the combined vehicle was seen flipping end over end before exploding.
The spacecraft reached a peak altitude of nearly 20 miles (32 km) before its fiery disintegration.
Nevertheless, SpaceX officials on the webcast cheered the feat of getting the fully integrated Starship and booster rocket off the ground for the first time with a seemingly otherwise clean launch and declared the brief episode a successful test flight.
A throng of SpaceX workers shown during the webcast watching a livestream together while gathered at the company’s headquarters near Los Angeles cheered wildly as the rocket cleared the launch tower and again when it blew up in the sky.
SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker, serving as one of the webcast commentators, said the test flight would provide a wealth of important data paving the way for the company to move ahead with additional tests.
Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, said on Twitter that the next Starship test launch would be “in a few months.”
“Congrats @SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months,” he tweeted.
Musk, who purchased Twitter last year for $44 billion, is also CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Inc.