SpaceX launched its shiny, bullet-shaped, straight-out-of-science fiction Starship several miles into the air from a remote corner of Texas on Wednesday, but the 6 1/2-minute test flight ended in an explosive fireball at touchdown.
It was the highest and most elaborate flight yet for the rocket ship that Elon Musk says could carry people to Mars in as little as six years.
This latest prototype — the first one equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines — was shooting for an altitude of up to 12.5 kilometers. That's almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere.
Starship seemed to hit the mark or at least come close. There was no immediate word from SpaceX on how high it went.
The full-scale, stainless steel model — 50 meters tall and 9 meters in diameter — soared out over the Gulf of Mexico. After about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border. The Raptor engines reignited for braking and the rocket tilted back upright. Upon touching down, however, the rocket ship became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering.
The entire flight — as dramatic and flashy as it gets, even by SpaceX standards — lasted just over six minutes and 40 seconds. SpaceX broadcast the sunset demo live on its website; repeated delays over the past week and a last-second engine abort Tuesday heightened the excitement among space fans.
"Awesome test. Congratulations Starship team!" read a scroll across the screen.
Musk kept expectations low going into this first high-altitude attempt by Starship, cautioning earlier this week there was "probably" a 1-in-3 chance of complete success.
Two lower, shorter test flights earlier this year from Boca Chica, Texas — a quiet coastal village before SpaceX moved in — used more rudimentary versions of Starship. Essentially cylindrical cans with cone tops and single Raptor engines, these early vehicles reached altitudes of 150 meters. An even earlier model, the short and squat Starhopper, made a tiny, tethered hop in 2019, followed by two increasingly higher climbs.