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SpaceX's 1st Starship launches on epic test flight, explodes in 'rapid unscheduled disassembly'

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas — The most powerful rocket ever built put on quite a show during its debut space launch.

With a mighty roar, the first-ever integrated Starship rocket soared toward space today (April 20) from SpaceX's seaside Starbase facility at Boca Chica Beach here on South Texas' Gulf Coast at 9:33 a.m. EDT (1333 GMT; 8:33 a.m. local Texas time).

It was a spectacular and surreal sight: The 394-foot-tall (120 meters) Starship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, rose off Starbase's orbital launch mount atop a pillar of flame generated by its 33 first-stage Raptor engines. Starship kept climbing in defiance of its tremendous bulk, its shiny, stainless-steel body reflecting the Texas morning sun all the while.

The climb didn't last long, however. The 165-foot-tall (50 m) Starship upper stage was supposed to separate from the Super Heavy first stage about three minutes after liftoff, but that never happened. The two vehicles remained connected, and the stack began to tumble, ultimately exploding — or experiencing a "rapid unscheduled disassembly," as SpaceX terms it — just under four minutes after launch.

This destruction was intentional, ordered after Starship experienced those problems.

"The vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude and began to tumble. The flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and ship," SpaceX wrote in an update(opens in new tab) a few hours after the flight.

But the employees gathered at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California to watch the launch let out a massive cheer at Starship's demise, celebrating the gains made on its first-ever liftoff. The giant vehicle reached a maximum altitude of about 24 miles (39 kilometers), according to the data on SpaceX's launch webcast.

"To get this far is amazing," SpaceX's Kate Tice said during the webcast. "Everything after clearing the tower was icing on the cake."

The flight plan today called for Super Heavy to come back to Earth in the Gulf of Mexico roughly eight minutes into the flight. The upper stage, meanwhile, was supposed to fire up its six Raptors to head up to the final frontier, and a planned partial trip around our planet.

The goal was to get Starship to a maximum altitude of about 145 miles (233 km), then bring it barreling back into Earth's atmosphere for a trial-by-fire reentry, ending with a hard splashdown in the Pacific Ocean not far from the Hawaiian island of Kauai about 90 minutes after liftoff.

SpaceX wasn't expecting everything to work out, however; new rockets often fail on their first test flight, and Starship is far bolder and more complex than most launchers. (It has 33 first-stage engines and stands nearly 400 feet tall, after all.) Rather, today was all about gathering data and responding properly to whatever ended up happening, company representatives stressed.

"Now this was a development test. It's a first test flight of Starship. And the goal is to gather the data and as we said, clear the pad and get ready to go again," SpaceX Principal Intergration Engineer John Insprucker said during the company's livestream. "So you never know exactly what's going to happen. But as we promised, excitement is guaranteed. And Starship gave us a rather spectacular end to what was truly an incredible test as far"

Follow Pegasus Aerospace System on Twitter @systemaerospace. Follow us on Twitter @systemaerospace or Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram @pegasusaerospace.

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