SpaceX's Starship blows up mid-flight after technical issue

Rocket fails to separate from booster after successful blast-off

SpaceX's Starship explodes mid-flight after first successful launch

SpaceX's Starship launches from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Thursday, April 20, 2023.  (AP Photo / Eric Gay)
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SpaceX had to blow up its flagship rocket mid-flight after blast-off on Thursday.

Chunks of Starship ― the most powerful spacecraft yet developed ― tumbled back to Earth after the launch from Texas.

The plan was to separate the unmanned rocket from the booster, which would then splash down into the ocean. Starship was intended to reach orbit before descending in a controlled landing near Hawaii.

But, after the technical issue, engineers ordered a "rapid unplanned disassembly" – a process that automatically disintegrates the rocket.

With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability
SpaceX statement

The rocket reached a peak altitude of 39 kilometres over the Gulf of Mexico when the mishap took place.

The company, owned by billionaire Elon Musk, said the launch still gave engineers "plenty of data" to try again. On the ground, SpaceX crew cheered the otherwise successful launch.

The cost of a single Starship has never been revealed, but Mr Musk said the broader project cost at least $3 billion.

"As if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation," SpaceX tweeted.

"Teams will continue to review data and work toward our next flight test.

"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."

Starship is a two-stage rocket system that includes a booster, with the spacecraft, called Starship, on top of it.

It is the most powerful launch vehicle developed and will be able to produce 3,991 tonnes of thrust, 15 per cent more than Nasa’s Apollo Moon rocket Saturn V.

Mr Musk has been trying to build it for years in hopes that one day Starship fleets would take people to Mars.

But SpaceX is also contracted by Nasa to develop the Starship Human Landing System, which would help astronauts land on the Moon under the US space agency’s Artemis programme.

Mr Musk has already sold seats on the Starship, including to Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, who plans on flying on the first crewed flight to the Moon, taking eight artists with him as part of his dearMoon programme.

American billionaire Jared Isaacman is also working with SpaceX through his Polaris programme, a series of privately-led space missions.

Mr Isaacman will serve as commander on the Polaris III mission — the first crewed orbital flight on the Starship rocket.

What was supposed to happen during the test flight?

SpaceX wanted to use to the test flight to measure whether the rocket can launch into orbit safely.

The rocket system launched from Starbase and the booster was supposed to separate from the spacecraft about 170 seconds into the flight.

The booster would have then performed a partial return and land in the Gulf of Mexico approximately 32km from the shore.

The orbital Starship would have continued flying between the Florida Straits.

It would have achieved orbit before performing a powered, targeted, soft-ocean landing about 100km off the north-west coast of Kauai, a Hawaiian island.

Updated: April 20, 2023, 5:33 PM