Starship first test flight
The Starship rocket, the world's biggest, made a successful lift-off as shown in the initial stages of its epic maiden flight, then exploded in a giant fireball about 4 minutes after lift-off on Thursday, April 20, 2023. Image Credit: SpaceX | screengrabs


  • Starship successfully lifted off from Starbase in Texas at 8.38 am ET, reached cruising speed of 2,125 km/h at an altitude of 29km, but failed to separate from "Super Heavy" booster.
  • World's biggest rocket scored a huge, put partial success on its maiden flight, as vehicle faced a "rapid unscheduled disassembly".
  • SpaceX depends on Starship to deliver its next-generation Starlink satellites to orbit. 
  • Nasa also depends on Starship, after it awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use Starship to land its astronauts on the moon. 

The ambitious project to bring humans back to the Moon, and colonise Mars, has faced a temporary setback following the partial failure of SpaceX's Starship to separate from the booster on its first orbital flight test on Thursday (April 20, 2023).

After a smooth liftoff on its second launch attempt, the world’s biggest rocket powered by 33 engines saw what engineers called a "rapid unscheduled disassembly", and exploded in a giant fireball at 3.59 minutes after launch.

The massively complicated test has been dubbed an "enormous success" as it cruised at a speed of 2,125 km/h and reached an altitude of 29 km. Five of its 33 engines did not fire.

The setback was expected as a rocket of this size and complexity, has never been flown before. Technical teams will assess the flight data to know what went wrong and make iterations for the next test flights. There are a number of Starships ready to fly. The ships, which has undergone more than 20 test flights, but separately, were not meant to land vertically on their first combined flight the way SpaceX's workhorse Falcon rocket boosters do.

But Starship first flight is considered a partial success. The world has never seen a ship that size last that long while experiencing multiple engine malfunctions from liftoff. It’s unclear why the "Super Heavy" booster was not shut down and the Starship released.

The ships were not meant to land vertically on its first flight. It’s not immediately clear when the next Starship test flight would be.

Even if Starship’s first orbital test flight partially failed, the fact that it flew at all is already considered an engineering success.

• Since March 2006, SpaceX has launched 5 Falcon 1 and 204 Falcon 9 rockets. Of these, 3 Falcon 1 and 2 Falcon 9 launches were complete failures and one Falcon 9 launch was a partial failure.

• Falcon 9 first-stage boosters landed successfully in 185 of 196 attempts (94.4%), with 157 out of 162 (96.9%) for the Falcon 9 Block 5 version.

• A total of 160 re-flights of first stage boosters have all successfully launched their payloads.

Beast of a rocket

Starship is an almost 400-foot-tall behemoth. Powered by a staggering 33 first-stage engines, it would have nearly twice the thrust of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which towers at 322 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty.

Until Starship, SLS was the most powerful rocket in the world.” SLS, however, falls into the ocean after its payload is launched.

The stainless steel Starship, on the other hand, is designed to return to a soft landing on Earth, to be reused.

While the SLS represents a traditional government approach to rocket design — one that uses hardware originally designed in the 1970s for the space shuttle — Starship symbolises space flight’s modern, entrepreneurial bent.

SpaceX Starship
Image Credit: AP

Reusable rocket, in-orbit refuelling

Starship is designed to be refuelled in orbit, allowing SpaceX to hoist an unprecedented amount of cargo and potentially dozens of people to deep space.

And, because it will be reusable, it is expected to be far less expensive to operate than the SLS. The promise of Starship and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s asserting that the vehicle “could make life on Mars real” have attracted legions of fans.

For years, they have jammed Musk’s presentations on the rocket, obsessively tracked its design iterations and made pilgrimages to SpaceX’s Starship facility in a remote corner of South Texas the company calls “Starbase”.


But Starship also has won over NASA, which has placed the rocket at the center of its exploration goals. In 2021, the space agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use it as the vehicle that would land astronauts on the surface of the moon, giving it a starring role in NASA’s campaign to return people to the lunar surface as part of its “Artemis” program.

Its launch will be the first time SpaceX has attempted to fly the full vehicle — the Starship spacecraft mounted on top of the Super Heavy booster.

A successful launch would be no small feat, especially given the size and complexity of the rocket.

“With a test such as this, success is measured by how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances development of Starship,” SpaceX said in a statement.

Speaking on Twitter Spaces on Sunday night, Musk explained as he has before that success is not guaranteed. He even suggested the test could be postponed.

Among the biggest concerns, Musk said Sunday, is an explosion that would destroy the launchpad.

“It will take us probably several months to rebuild the launchpad if we melt it,” he said. As for the booster, he compared it to “having a box of grenades. You know, really big grenades.”

Vehicle for science

If it does fly successfully, Starship would serve not only as a vehicle for exploration, but for science as well. With its ability to hoist enormous amounts of mass to orbit, astronomers and astrophysicists see rethinking what sorts of telescopes and instruments can be catapulted into space.

In its fully reusable configuration, Starship would be able to lift more than 100 metric tons — more than 220,000 pounds — to the moon and even more to low Earth orbit, according to a SpaceX user’s guide from 2020.

By contrast, the current version of SLS is capable of hoisting 27 metric tons, or 59,500 pounds, to the moon, according to NASA.

With a pending upgrade, that would increase to 38 metric tons or 83,700 pounds.


“Assuming it is successful, Starship will dramatically enhance our space capabilities in ways that will qualitatively alter how astrophysics missions can be built,” predicted an article in Physics Today written by a trio of astronomers and physicists.

“Astrophysics missions to space have always been tightly constrained by the capabilities of the launchers, which have not changed substantially in two decades.”

A report last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that “Starships can accommodate payloads that are significantly larger and heavier than traditional NASA planetary payloads, significantly reducing the need for the costly reductions in size and mass required for traditional NASA payloads.”

“It’s quite simple, really. When you design any missions for astronomy, you’re very limited by the mass available in the rocket,” Martin Elvis, a senior astrophysicist at the Harvard and Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in an interview.

The James Webb Space Telescope, for example, had to be designed to be folded so it could be stuffed into the nose cone of the Ariane 5 rocket that shot it to space. The total mass was nearly 14,000 pounds, far less than what Starship would be able to accommodate.


“Your whole development process, your whole design process, becomes so much simpler,” he said. “And that saves enormous amounts of cost.”

Indeed, Starship’s cargo space is so generous that it may take a while for the space industry to grow into it.

“Starship is too big for most payloads today,” said Carissa Christensen, the CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, a consulting firm.

Disrupting space exploration

“If it is cheap enough, that might not matter. And it could serve as a direct substitute for less capable vehicles in the near term. The real impact will be new concepts that take advantage of the vehicle’s massive capacity. It will take years for the market to design and manufacture payloads that are truly optimised for Starship.”

Starship already has a few customers. Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese billionaire, has booked a trip around the moon with several other private citizens.

Another billionaire, Jared Isaacman, who commanded an all private-citizen flight to orbit on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft in 2021, plans to fly on Starship’s first mission with people. It is unclear, however, when either of those flights would occur.

In the near term, SpaceX needs Starship to begin flying regularly so that it can put the next generation of its Starlink internet satellites in orbit.

They are more capable than the satellites in the current constellation, which are launched in batches by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. But the new satellites are much heavier, about 1.25 tons, and would require Starship’s increased power.

Fiery explosions

SpaceX blew up a series of spacecraft prototypes during an earlier testing campaign, flying them about six miles up, then bringing them back down in landing attempts that ended in fiery explosions until the company finally stuck the landing.

Last year, SpaceX won preliminary approval for its first launch from the Federal Aviation Administration, which required it to take many actions designed to protect the surrounding environment and reduce the impact of its activities on a nearby public beach and wildlife preserve before being given a launch license.

Another try

Musk said earlier that SpaceX would try again soon following a launch failure. “We’re building a whole series of Starships in South Texas, and so I think we’ve got hopefully an 80 percent chance of reaching orbit this year.”

Once it’s operational, Musk said, Starship could lower “the cost of access to space by orders of magnitude,” allow people to go to Mars and eventually achieve his goal of making humanity “multi-planetary.”

“We don’t want to be one of those lame one-planet civilizations,” he said.

(With inputs from Reuters, Washington Post)

What happened on Monday

SpaceX on Monday called off its first attempt to launch Starship, the largest rocket ever built and one that NASA intends to use to land its astronauts on the moon.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the scrub was called after a valve on the rocket’s first stage froze, leading to a pressurisation issue.

After the launch was called off, engineers used the time to practice loading the rocket and spacecraft with some 10 million pounds of very cold propellant in what’s known as a “wet dress rehearsal.”

The liquid methane fuel is kept at minus-272 degrees Fahrenheit, making the loading process complicated.

If the rocket gets “far enough away from the launchpad before something goes wrong, then I think I would consider that to be a success. Just don’t blow up the launchpad.”

Losing “the launchpad is really the thing we’re concerned about,” he said. “It will take us probably several months to rebuild the launchpad if we melt it.”

Standing at nearly 400 feet tall, the Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft would have more power than NASA’s Space Launch System, which also had to wave off its first launch attempt because of technical challenges.