The skies over Texas have never seen a fireball quite like this before.

On April 20 a little after 8:30 A.M. local time at the southernmost tip of Texas, SpaceX’s Starship launch system—the largest, most powerful rocket yet built—roared to life in a milestone liftoff that sent it rising above the Gulf of Mexico. For a few moments, Starship—and its goal of revolutionizing space access—appeared to be soaring smoothly, but the harsh reality of rocketry soon kicked in, and an anomaly caused the massive launch vehicle to disintegrate in a fireball.

“Starship gave us a rather spectacular end to what was truly an incredible test,” said John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer who provided commentary during a livestream of the launch.

Despite the abrupt ending, neither the company nor industry observers see the flight as a failure. That’s because the history of spaceflight is riddled with programs that have learned from explosive mistakes during test flights to reach their goals. 

“There are lots of different ways to succeed and fail with these kinds of tests,” says Teasel Muir-Harmony, a historian of science at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

Starship sits at the heart of SpaceX’s dreams of sending humans to the moon and Mars and is also designed to ferry countless tourists—and thousands of the company’s Starlink Internet satellites—into orbit. So every test is a high-stakes endeavor.

The launch system is composed of the 164-foot-tall, missile-shaped Starship vehicle and the 226-foot-tall Super Heavy booster it sits upon. Both components are designed to be reusable, and SpaceX aspires to eventually top off Starship’s fuel tanks in orbit to power even more adventurous itineraries.

Starship and Super Heavy have each flown before, but today’s flight marked the first time they launched as a unit. During the flight, most—although apparently not all—of Super Heavy’s 33 engines fired successfully for several minutes. (During the livestream, SpaceX engineer Kate Tice said that three engines appeared not to be firing but didn’t provide any details about the issue; video of the rocket during its ascent suggested up to five engines were inactive.)

That alone was a feat, because no rocket has ever carried so many engines. “You have this very large number of rocket engines firing in parallel, and it is unlikely that everything will go smoothly with all of them at the same time,” Paulo Lozano, a space propulsion expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Scientific American before the test flight. “All of these engines are going to be working at the limit of what the materials can handle,” he added.

Despite the smooth liftoff, something went awry at stage separation when the two vehicles should have parted ways to allow Starship to soar onward on a one-hour flight that would have ended with the vehicle splashing into the ocean near Hawaii. Instead, Super Heavy and Starship were unable to disentangle themselves. As a result, the whole assemblage spun out of control and fell to pieces after reaching a maximum altitude of around 24 miles (39 kilometers).

“Starship just experienced what we call a rapid unscheduled disassembly, or a RUD, during ascent,” Insprucker said during the livestream.

Even though the flight only lasted a few minutes, it was a key milestone for the private spaceflight company, which now has a wealth of data it can use to finetune the vehicle and—it hopes—ensure that the next flight lasts longer and soars far higher.

“We should expect failures of brand-new rockets,” says Laura Forczyk, a space analyst and executive director of Astralytical, a space consulting firm. “SpaceX will learn from its mistakes and hopefully we will see quicker iterations once that first test flight is off the ground and they get the data they need to improve for the next time.”

She says that she expects to see test flights continuing throughout this year, with Starship beginning to loft real payloads this year or next.

Among those payloads will be a host of SpaceX’s own Starlink internet satellites, which have proliferated in orbit since the first operational batch of 60 launched in 2019. Earlier this year SpaceX began lofting a new, larger type of Starlink satellite, a prelude to even bulkier 2,000-kilogram versions that will depend on Starship for launch.

Scientists are also eager to ride on Starship. Thanks to its heft, the vehicle will be able to launch larger, heavier instruments to more distant destinations. And if SpaceX meets its reusability goals, such voyages could come at a much lower price.

“It’s just such a paradigm-shifting capability that the planetary science community, I don’t think we’ve fully wrapped our minds around it,” says Jennifer Heldmann, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California.

She pictures a world where scientists no longer struggle to shrink their instruments or ensure that each one works flawlessly, thanks to Starship’s larger capacity. “That opens up the possibility for many more flights, many more instruments, many more payloads to be able to go, and importantly, I think, many more people to be able to participate in these types of missions,” she says.

The outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune—would become easier to reach, and the construction and testing of massive telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope, which unfolded in space during a harrowing two-week procedure, could become far simpler, she adds.

Eventually, Starship is due to launch humans as well, and SpaceX has already sold three crewed flights on the vehicle. The first will carry billionaire Jared Isaacman, who orbited Earth with three crewmates in late 2021 in a SpaceX Dragon capsule. Two later flights will target the moon. One will carry Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and eight artistic passengers, while the other will transport the world’s first space tourist, Dennis Tito, who visited the International Space Station in 2001, and Tito’s spouse.

Those flights still face a long path to the launchpad. SpaceX’s current workhorse rocket, Falcon 9, spent a decade carrying only cargo before astronauts first stepped aboard in 2020. “We need to see Starship launch successfully without crew several times before we can expect to see crew onboard,” Forczyk says. “There’s a lot on the line when you’re launching people.”

But NASA is relying on SpaceX to have Starship ready for humans in just a few years. The agency selected a modified version of Starship to ferry astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025 in a mission dubbed Artemis III, which may become the first time humans have walked on the moon since the early 1970s. These astronauts will launch in NASA’s Orion capsule atop a Space Launch System rocket, which made its own debut flight in November of 2022, then transfer to an orbitally fueled Starship lunar lander while orbiting the moon.

“If Starship is successful and everything stays on schedule, then we’ll be getting to see it land the next set of humans on the moon,” says Erika Nesvold, co-founder of the JustSpace Alliance, which advocates for a more ethical future in space. “Because it’s such an important aspect of the Artemis program, I think a successful launch is key to keep all of that on track,” Nesvold says.

SpaceX hopes to see Starship someday carry humans one stop beyond the moon as well. Founder Elon Musk has long touted Starship as the heart of his plans to make humans “an interplanetary species” by establishing a foothold on Mars. But those plans remain the most distant items on Starship’s agenda, and they, like so many other private spaceflight dreams, raise serious concerns about extraterrestrial property and labor rights, among other issues, Nesvold says.

Even on Earth, SpaceX’s ambitions have faced opposition, whether from astronomers worried about light pollution from the company’s Starlink satellites or from people living near Starbase, as the company calls its Starship launch site perched near where the U.S.-Mexico border runs into the Gulf of Mexico. Residents have fought SpaceX’s closure of public beaches, protested threats they believe the company’s rocketry poses to nearby wildlife preserves and argued that Starship’s potential to bring local economic benefits has been overblown.

“It doesn’t feel great that everybody is willing to sacrifice you and your home for what they consider to be progress, but what I consider to be a bunch of nerds who watched way too much Star Wars growing up,” says Emma Guevara, an organizer for the Sierra Club in Brownsville, Tex., the nearest city to Starbase, located about 25 miles away.

She says that in her community, one in five children face food insecurity, and most people don’t have access to healthcare. Meanwhile, Musk typically pitches his Mars dreams as a necessary outpost to establish a civilizational backup plan in case of disaster on Earth.

“I guess it’s a win for the rich people that will maybe get to go on this rocket,” Guevara said before liftoff of the implications of a successful Starship flight, noting that she feared it would explode on the launch pad. But she doesn’t see the fate of her community soaring with Starship. “It doesn’t sound like anyone here is going to go to Mars,” she says.

Editor’s Note (4/20/2023): This story has been updated after posting with additional quotes and information.