Starship’s fiery crash was still a win for the future of spaceflight. Here’s why.

The first test launch of the world’s most powerful rocket ended dramatically as it broke apart in the sky. But there’s still a lot riding on it—including NASA’s ambition to return to the moon.

By Joe Pappalardo
Published 21 Apr 2023, 10:25 BST
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SpaceX's Starship rocket is designed to launch heavy payloads to orbit and even land astronauts on the moon and Mars. Its first test flight, however, ended when it broke apart in flight.
Photograph by Dan Winters, National Geographic

SpaceX’s massive Starship roared into the sky on the morning of April 20, but the spacecraft and its booster failed to separate, tumbling in the sky before breaking up and falling into the Gulf of Mexico.

It was a historic moment, nonetheless, the successful launch of the largest and most powerful rocket ever to fly. The crowds of thousands heard—and felt—from five miles away, the titanic thunder of dozens of the 394-foot-tall rocket’s 33 engines firing at once. 

No one seemed disappointed, even SpaceX, which lauded the fact it took off at all and cleared the launchpad, the only piece of hardware that isn’t considered expendable. The cheers from the crowds gathered on beaches east of Brownsville were responding to a promise from SpaceX founder Elon Musk. “Success maybe,” he predicted of the flight attempt last week on Twitter. “Excitement guaranteed.”

As a flight test, it was brief. Such fiery conclusions are jarring and not the norm for spaceflight. But destroying rockets is part of SpaceX’s design ethos, and one reason crowds throng to these prototype launches. The company expects its prototypes to be lost, counting on collecting critical data to quickly design and test the next prototype.

More than 20 minutes after the launch, SpaceX employees clustered in celebratory groups, cheering and embracing. The excitement was unfeigned—the company considers this a success.

Also watching were NASA officials who have placed their first moonshot crewed landing in SpaceX's hands. While SpaceX’s success relies on taking risks for the sake of speed, the U.S. space agency’s successes are based on a heritage of deliberation and caution. 

The rocket, manufactured at SpaceX’s beachfront factory here, has two massive parts, the Super Heavy booster and an upper stage spacecraft called Starship. A key goal of today’s test was to determine if the parts could safely separate while in high-speed flight. 

Starship soars into the sky after launch, flying with about twice the thrust of the Apollo Saturn V rocket.
Photograph by Eric Gay, AP Photo
A few minutes into the flight, the rocket began tumbling. It then broke apart in midair about four minutes after liftoff.
Photograph by Eric Gay, AP Photo
Tens of thousands of spectators gathered to watch the Starship launch at Boca Chica Beach, Texas.
Photograph by VERONICA G. CARDENAS, AFP, Getty Images

At two minutes and 52 seconds, the 164-foot-tall Starship spacecraft was supposed to separate from its 230-foot-tall ride. But that never happened, causing what’s euphemistically described as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” 

SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that the flight was automatically terminated when the rocket left its assigned trajectory. After reaching a height of about 24 miles, the launch system, as one, crashed into the water.

Future versions of Starship could carry more than 150 tons into orbit—60 tons more than SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy—and land on other planetary bodies such as the moon and Mars. Such a rocket could change the dynamic of launches to Earth orbit and deep space by bringing more and larger payloads on a single launch. NASA is also planning to use the spacecraft to land astronauts on the lunar surface as soon as December 2025 as part of the Artemis program.

Musk wants to use Starship to dominate the heavy-launch market—and to colonise Mars. But this maiden flight was much bigger than any one billionaire. Starship and its booster have attracted customers from space-struck tourists to the Defense Department, which is seeking to use the rocket as a way to fly cargo anywhere on Earth in just 30 minutes.

But first on the list of Starship customers is NASA—and amid all the fire, smoke, and publicity was the first flight test of the lander chosen to return astronauts to the moon.

A tale of two rockets

NASA is paying SpaceX more than $4 billion for its role in the Artemis program—three lunar landings, one uncrewed and two crewed. Astronauts in an Orion capsule, launched on the space agency’s own Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, will travel to the moon’s orbit, transfer to a waiting Starship lander, and ride it to and from the surface. The fates of SpaceX and NASA’s rockets are now intertwined, and America’s return to the moon is at stake if either were to fail.

The capabilities of Starship and SLS may be comparable, but the pace of their progress is starkly different. SLS funding started in 2011, three years before SpaceX broke ground for its spaceport at Boca Chica Beach. The debut SLS flight occurred last November, a 25-day-long mission that sent an uncrewed Orion capsule to lunar orbit and back. With the first Starship launch, SpaceX’s effort has nearly caught up with NASA’s heavy-lifting counterpart.

“The fact that Starship is already in flight testing is unique and revolutionary in the space business,” says Randy Bresnik, the assistant to the chief of NASA’s astronaut office at Johnson Space Center. “This hardware is being developed with a sense of urgency by everyone at SpaceX.”

Starship also promises to be billions of dollars cheaper than SLS. The Super Heavy booster is designed to be used repeatedly, while SLS rockets are good for just one launch. In 2019 the White House Office of Management and Budget estimated the cost of an SLS launch at more than $2 billion, while each Starship launch will cost about $40 million. In addition to the moon landings, scores of Starship launches to refuel spacecraft in orbit are covered by the contracts.

The design ethos guiding SLS and Starship couldn’t be more different. NASA builds space vehicles to assumed perfection and then tests them to prove it. SpaceX builds many prototypes, testing them to their limits and often beyond. Tanks burst, rocket-powered craft explode on failed landings, and things catch on fire. The hardware in today’s flight was Booster 7 and Starship 24—serial numbers that identify the vehicles as born-to-die test beds.

“It's a completely different philosophy, trying to get it right the first time perfectly versus doing something quickly to learn as fast as possible and converging on the right thing,” says former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman, now a professor of astronautical engineering at the University of Southern California and a SpaceX senior advisor. “SpaceX is designing vehicles that you can rapidly prototype,” he says. “If Serial Number 10 blows up, you have Serial Number 11 waiting in the wings. Just keep moving and keep learning.”

This is fine while building spacecraft, but that mentality must shift when it comes to flying with humans aboard. “Can you have a culture that rewards rapid decision-making, tons of risk, and it is fine with failure but then ramp up the vigilance when the consequence of failure is high?” Reisman asks. “The trap that SpaceX has to guard against is: Can you dial it up and dial it down appropriately?”

There are examples of SpaceX's aggressive risk-taking seemingly creeping into actual flight operations. In June 2015, a small, pressurised tank broke loose during the launch of a Dragon cargo spacecraft bound for the International Space Station, starting a chain of events that ended the CRS-7 mission in an aerial fireball. Another ugly mishap occurred in September 2016 when a Falcon 9 rocket detonated during propellant loading, destroying a $195-million communications satellite along with it. And in 2019 SpaceX destroyed a Crew Dragon vehicle during engine tests at Cape Canaveral

“At least in one of those cases, it was because we were taking too many risks when consequences were high that we didn't dial it back appropriately,” Reisman says. “I would say our partnership with NASA really was beneficial to SpaceX in those instances … NASA came in and was part of the investigations.”

Since then, success has been SpaceX’s best argument. “For more than two years, SpaceX has been safely taking our crews to the International Space Station, and cargo for many more years than that,” says NASA’s Bresnik. “They’ve become efficient in low-Earth orbit operations. NASA has the historical reference and insight from Apollo to draw on, and we are all working to go to the moon as soon as possible.”

Commercial deep space Dreams

SpaceX is parlaying its role in NASA’s Artemis moon landing—not to mention the money—to create hardware and services to be sold to other customers. The company plans on using the enormous rocket to open up opportunities in deep space and closer to home.

“With a fully reusable Starship, satellites can be captured and repaired in orbit, returned to Earth, or transferred to a new operational orbit,” SpaceX says in its Starship User’s Guide. Visualisations of this show Starship’s bullet-shaped fairing opening like the mouth of a largemouth bass to capture or discharge payloads in orbits.

As for commercial customers, two billionaires are waiting for Starship besides Musk. One is Jared Isaacman, who funded and flew on a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission called Inspiration4 last September and started the Polaris Program, a cadre of commercial astronauts and charity fundraisers who are expected to crew the first Starship flights with humans on board. As for lunar ambitions, Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and Denis Tito, an American entrepreneur who self-funded a trip to the ISS on a Russian spacecraft in 2001, have both paid SpaceX unspecified amounts for around-the-moon trips.

The rocket’s most reliable customer, however, may be SpaceX itself. By using Starship’s expansive cargo bay, the company says it could deliver 400 Starlink internet satellites per launch, as opposed to the 60 that can be carried by a Falcon 9 rocket.

Musk started SpaceX with the goal of launching enough people and supplies to colonise Mars—a task that will take hundreds if not thousands of Starship flights. Despite the destructive end of this latest test, this distant dream has edged closer to reality.

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