Speed Reads

'Successful failure'

Why SpaceX is genuinely cheering the Starship test flight's explosive 'rapid unscheduled disassembly'

SpaceX's 394-foot-tall Starship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, lifted off Thursday morning from the company's Starbase launch site in south Texas, propelled skyward by the 33 Raptor rockets on its massive Super Heavy first-stage booster. The uncrewed rocket, making its first test flight, rose 24 miles into the air before beginning to tumble, then, about four minutes after liftoff, it exploded. Back at SpaceX headquarters in California, employees cheered. One sprayed a bottle of champagne on colleagues. 

"To get this far is amazing," SpaceX's Kate Tice said on the livestream. "Everything after clearing the tower was icing on the cake." SpaceX tweeted, dryly: "As if the flight test was not exciting enough, Starship experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly before stage separation."

Starship's test flight was supposed to take it in a partial orbit of the earth before crashing into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii about 90 minutes after liftoff. The company explained that after the Starship rocket failed to separate from the Super Heavy booster and started to lose altitude, SpaceX or its computers hit the self-destruct button. 

"It doesn't take a degree in aerospace engineering to know that, ideally, rockets aren't supposed to blow up," Daniel Victor and Kenneth Chang write at The New York Times. But while, for most observers, "blowing up a rocket sure looks like failure," SpaceX "counted the flight test as a win," Marina Koren adds at The Atlantic. "They're sort of right. Explosions, although disappointing, happen during rocket testing," especially at SpaceX.

"This is the way SpaceX goes about: They test this stuff, they run it hard, sometimes it blows up," said Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, which is counting on a Starship rocket to take astronauts back to the moon as soon as 2025. "We'll get a report on what happened to the second stage, but I'm very encouraged that they've gotten along this far." 

Thursday's launch was a classic "SpaceX successful failure," Garrett Reisman, SpaceX's former director of space operations, told Reuters. Even in the design stage, SpaceX engineers "look for opportunities to create chances to fail, even spectacularly sometimes, early on and often so that you can learn as fast as you possibly can." 

Testing early and testing often, and sometimes breaking things, "is their ethos," BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos agreed. And "it's been very successful for them. You know, their Falcon 9 rocket now is the dominant rocket out there, and nobody comes clear to them. It launches every four days, it puts up 80 percent of all satellites."

SpaceX chief Elon Musk will be especially relieved that Thursday's launch "didn't destroy the launchpad," meaning SpaceX can try again with a new model, as Musk tweeted  "in a few months," Koren writes at The Atlantic. So "even after the fiery drama today, SpaceX is, wildly but surely, one tiny step closer to making missions to Mars a reality," which has always been Musk's Starship dream.