Starship, SpaceX’s transformational mega-rocket, makes it to space

Soon after sunrise today, SpaceX’s Starship rocket—a steel colossus more than 120 meters tall that is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built—thundered its way up over the South Texas coast before exploding in space at approximately 148 kilometers altitude, somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico.

The company nevertheless considers the flight a success, having exceeded milestones set by the gargantuan rocket’s first test flight in April , which ended when it self-destructed at an altitude of 39 kilometers. This time, Starship’s upper stage fired up less than 3 minutes after launch and separated while some of its booster’s 33 engines were still lit, the first such “hot staging” that Starship had performed. After separation, the booster turned away and exploded, in what the company called a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” A few minutes later, just as the upper stage was getting set to coast in space most of the way around Earth, an automated safety system blew up the vehicle after detecting some kind of problem.

If future test flights succeed, Starship could upend standard approaches to human exploration and science in space. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk has long championed the fully reusable rocket, designed to lift 150 tons into low-Earth orbit, as a way to get cargo cheaply into orbit—and to get humans to the surface of the Moon and Mars.

Musk has suggested that Starship could deliver payloads to orbit for as little as $10 per kilogram , depending on the vehicle’s flight rate (and how much of the savings SpaceX passes on to customers). “It has the potential to launch more payload and more crew members at a lower price than any other launch vehicle that has ever existed,” says Laura Forczyk, executive director of the space-industry consulting firm Astralytical.

Already, NASA is counting on the vehicle to be a centerpiece of its Artemis Moon program, with a modified Starship slated to land astronauts on the Moon during the agency’s Artemis III mission a few years from now. The vehicle is expected to be able to carry more than 100 tons of payload to the lunar surface in a single flight. That’s more mass than humankind has cumulatively soft-landed on the moon so far. “Spaceflight is a bold adventure demanding a can-do spirit and daring innovation,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a post on Musk’s social media platform X (formerly Twitter) after today’s launch attempt. “Today’s test is an opportunity to learn—then fly again.”

If Starship’s full promise is realized, astronomy and planetary science also could benefit. For instance, space telescopes could be made much larger or out of heavier but cheaper materials. Or space agencies could launch fleets of identical spacecraft to distant destinations, emboldened by the redundancy to take greater risks with the design or by making instruments more cheaply. “If the mass and the volume of the payload are larger, then we can imagine other capabilities in space that we’ve never even done,” says Philip Metzger, a physicist and space technologist at the University of Central Florida.

First SpaceX needs to prove out its rocket. Today’s launch follows months of regulatory scrutiny, after the first attempt in April damaged its launch pad and kicked up a cloud of sand and soil that fell onto a nearby town. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) opened a mishap investigation, which closed in September with 63 corrective actions for SpaceX to implement. The FAA also initiated a broader safety and environmental review of SpaceX’s Starship operations, which concluded on 15 November.

The company also has to contend with the controversies surrounding Musk, who drew widespread condemnation earlier this week after appearing to endorse an antisemitic post on X. Despite Musk’s erratic behavior, Forczyk predicts NASA’s relationship with SpaceX and Starship will remain steady. “Just [as] with the Russians after the invasion of Ukraine, it’s business as usual,” Forczyk says. “NASA does not want to be pulled into controversies.”