SpaceX’s Historic Launch of Starship

SpaceX’s Starship in midflight. Credit: SpaceX.

On April 20 at 8:33 a.m. CDT, SpaceX conducted an orbital test flight from a launchpad near Brownsville, Texas. The Starship vehicle consisted of the first-stage rocket booster and the second-stage spacecraft. The Super Heavy rocket booster is the first of its kind, hosting 33 Raptor engines. The launch was the first test of this rocket booster type, introducing both the 33-engine configuration and using methane as a fuel source. This vehicle was also made of steel, a difference from most rockets that tend to be made of carbon composites and lighter metals.

The rocket successfully lifted off, reaching a maximum altitude of 24 miles. A few minutes into the launch, the vehicle spun head over tail. Four minutes into the flight, Starship initiated the self-destruct sequence, and the rocket exploded. The flight termination system is put in place to ensure the safety of the surrounding area, meant for situations where the rocket is going off course and might cause damage outside of the launch area. The failure occurred because the second stage didn’t separate from the first stage booster, causing the rocket to wobble and spin over itself, triggering the self-destruct.

While the rocket did explode, SpaceX is calling the launch a success. This launch had multiple new add-ons, and the rocket did lift off. However, the loss of the rocket was not the only hit SpaceX took. The launch caused the launch pad’s concrete to shatter. While launch sites are expected to have some damage, this site did not have a flame trench, which would redirect exhaust plumes. A steel, water-cooled plate is in the building stages for the launch pad but was not ready by the test date. SpaceX is still going through collected data, analyzing what went wrong, and plans to use the information to improve the design of the next test rocket and launch pad. READ MORE: Was the SpaceX launch really a ‘success’? and Why did SpaceX Starship’s debut launch cause so much damage to the pad?