In a blaze of flame and smoke, SpaceX launched the largest rocket ever built and sent the Starship craft into space—but then the vehicle was destroyed. Though the full mission was not completed, the launch represents a major step for the rocket, which NASA plans to use to land astronauts on the moon.
At 7:03 a.m. local time in Boca Chica, Texas, the enormous booster called Super Heavy lifted off and successfully separated from the upper stage spacecraft. Then the booster exploded as it fell back to Earth, rather than splashing down in the Gulf of Mexico as intended. The Starship upper stage appeared to be safely on its way to a flight around Earth heading east, to circle the planet and then splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
But then communication with Starship was lost minutes later. While the craft climbed into space, reaching 480,000 feet and just before SpaceX planned to shut down its engines, the automated flight termination system triggered and destroyed Starship over the Gulf of Mexico.
“Congrats to the teams who made progress on today’s flight test,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said on X, formerly Twitter, after the launch.
SpaceX’s experimental launches have often featured explosions and mishaps that make people wonder if the test flight failed. This launch hit its primary goals, as the wild cheers from SpaceX staff in Hawthorne, California, attested during this morning’s launch. For an experimental rocket launch to be considered a success, it must perform better than the preceding test—and during the first test flight, the rocket careened out of control after Starship failed to separate, and then it self-destructed in midair.
In today’s flight, SpaceX made a change to how this critical separation of the upper spacecraft occurs. The upper stage fired its engines seconds before the rocket’s sections parted, a method called “hot stage separation,” and remarkably, it worked on its first real-world attempt.
After this key part of the flight, things began to fall apart. The booster exploded on the way down, rather than firing its engines again to turn around and set down in the Gulf. And the upper stage automatically destroyed itself due to an issue in the flight.
It’s hard to believe that a human spaceflight program would rely on repeatedly blowing up rockets and spacecraft. It’s also hard to imagine that state and federal regulators would allow it. But that’s the story of SpaceX.
There were more than the eyes of spectators and live streamers watching today’s launch—NASA officials are eager to see progress, since Starship is an integral part of the Artemis moonshot program to establish a lunar outpost in this decade. In the future, the spacecraft is to be sent to lunar orbit, where astronauts will board for the first descent to the moon’s surface in more than 50 years.
The cultural differences between traditional NASA engineering and SpaceX are on stark display at each test flight. Traditional development programs design to perfection before testing to validate. The mantra at SpaceX is a lot different: Build. Test. Break. Repeat. Among the flaming wreckage, Elon Musk’s company has made more engineering progress than any competitor or government-funded space program.
“SpaceX is designing vehicles that you can rapidly prototype,” says Garrett Erin Reisman, a professor at the University of Southern California and a former NASA astronaut and SpaceX employee. “If Serial Number 10 blows up, you have Serial Number 11 waiting in the wings. Just keep moving and keep learning.”
When SpaceX began development of its Falcon 9, the company suffered four flight failures before the different rocket stages successfully separated without being destroyed. That rocket is now the most frequently launched in the world, the mainstay of NASA’s crew and cargo missions to the International Space Station, as well as the industry leader of commercial satellite launches. The company is applying the same engineering methodology to the Starship project—only with much larger prototypes. “A rapid iterative development approach has been the basis for all of SpaceX’s major innovative advancements,” SpaceX noted in a pre-flight statement.
The approach and pace can also exact a price. An investigation published this month by Reuters described a workplace where safety is casually shunted aside for progress. The report tallied 600 injuries over nine years, including a workplace fatality. In 2014 Lonnie LeBlanc died after being thrown from a moving truck at the company’s engine test site in McGregor, Texas, while trying to hold down a section of insulation for a pressure tank.
Such a death at a government facility would have attracted more notice. By hiring SpaceX, NASA is positioned to enjoy the fruits of the privately held company’s aggressive pace without assuming responsibility. “NASA is so high profile when it comes to its reputation and who they’re held accountable to,” says Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of the space consulting company Astralytical. “They have Congress. SpaceX is not as accountable, only to its investors and its customers.”
Given issues raised by the company’s safety record, many question whether others should adopt this aggressive engineering approach—if other companies could even get away with the risks that SpaceX takes.
“Fundamentally, I think SpaceX has a license to fail,” says Casey Dreier, chief of space policy at The Planetary Society. “That is a huge advantage that isn’t truly examined enough.”
SpaceX’s support is due to its track record, something other space companies don’t have. “SpaceX is no longer some out-of-nowhere, brash-talking, yet unproven company. They’re NASA’s most reliable and most successful contractor,” notes Dreier. “There are three institutions in the world that have the ability to independently launch people into space: Russia, China, and SpaceX. The U.S. government no longer has that ability.”
Geopolitical urgency has returned to spaceflight, and without SpaceX, NASA would still be renting rides for its astronauts from Russia. NASA administrator Bill Nelson also frames the Chinese lunar program as a rival to Artemis, and one that could reach the lunar surface first. NASA needs SpaceX to succeed to stay competitive in this space race.
According to the current schedule, NASA’s first Artemis moon landing is to occur in 2025. Delays are expected, including from NASA’s Space Launch System—the rocket that will deliver the astronauts from Florida to lunar orbit, where a Starship vehicle will await them for the touchdown on the moon. Such a prominent placement in NASA’s moonshot program gives SpaceX influence, in Washington D.C. and beyond.
Friends in high places
The regulatory branch of the government that holds the most sway over SpaceX is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). It may come as a surprise to SpaceX enthusiasts, but the agency has been fairly accommodating to the company, considering its often-destructive launches. Gaining FAA permissions has delayed the Starship program for several months, but the demands made on the company in terms of hardware changes and environmental mitigations have been mild.
Since the last explosive test flight, the FAA has been accruing information to approve the next one. As required by the Endangered Species Act, the agency collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to sign off on any changes made to the rocket and launchpad. At issue with this launch was the new water deluge system, which sprayed as much as 350,000 gallons of water during Starship’s liftoff, most of it converted to billowing steam. This water cools a new steel blast plate that SpaceX installed to protect its launchpad, which suffered major damage during Starship’s first test flight.
Pressure on FWS came from more than just Musk’s X account. NASA administrator Nelson a week before today’s launch told the Washington Post: “It is essential to us that SpaceX be able to test their rocket.” U.S. Representatives Tony Gonzales and Vicente Gonzalez (a Democrat and Republican, both from South Texas) wrote a public letter to FWS asking for a quick approval. “The United States is currently in a space race with the rest of the world,” they wrote. “The Federal government should not hinder public companies as they develop and push the United States to remain a leader in the space exploration realm.”
This Wednesday the FWS and FAA announced that the new water deluge system was covered by an existing launch license filed in 2022. “There are no significant environmental changes,” the FAA said, allowing today’s launch to proceed.
Such permissive rulings have become expected, despite the scale of the rocket and incidents of flaming debris landing in public wildlife preserves. Jim Chapman, the president of local group Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, has accused the FAA of being “almost a partner” with SpaceX. His group joined the Sierra Club and others in a lawsuit against the State of Texas to halt Starship testing, claiming officials violated the state constitution while making exceptions for the company’s launch site on Boca Chica beach. It failed in September, removing one of the few obstacles from Starship’s test ambitions there.
Elon Musk has prevailed in the courts, put regulators on their pace, and dominated the commercial launch industry. But physics gets the final say over the success of Starship. “I think they do have a good shot of pulling it off,” Dreier says of the rocket. “But it still has to be proven.”
There is no leveraging, cajoling, or finessing the calculations of thrust, the pressure inside the cryogenic tanks, or the behavior of a 165-foot-long spaceship attempting a rocket-powered landing.