Starship achieves liftoff and stage separation at Boca Chica

Flight termination systems destroy spacecraft

SpaceX’s mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

With a roar that shook structures and rattled windows dozens of miles away, Starship-Super Heavy booster lifted off from SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site at 7 a.m. on Nov. 18, successfully achieving separation of the two stages before both vehicles were destroyed by onboard automated flight-termination systems (FTS).

The shutdown of 30 of the Super Heavy’s 33 Raptor engines took place nearly three minutes into the flight, when the vehicle had attained a speed of more than 3,480 mph and an altitude of nearly 44 miles above the Gulf of Mexico. The booster separated from the six-engine Starship soon after and positioned itself to land in the Gulf, though it exploded 3:22 into the flight compliments of the onboard FTS. 

Starship, with all six of its Raptor engines ignited, continued on its trajectory toward the Straits of Florida and by seven minutes after launch appeared to be on track to achieve orbit for the planned single trip around the Earth before splashing down off the coast of Hawaii. Mission controllers lost the signal from Starship at the point when it had reached 14,990 mph and an altitude of 92 miles, at 8:04 into the flight and near the end of Starship’s six-minute engine burn. 

Starship would have reentered about one hour after liftoff, though controllers soon realized that the ship had also been destroyed by its automated FTS. This was SpaceX’s second Starship orbital flight attempt. The first one, on April 20, ended four minutes into the flight when the FTS was activated after the stages failed to separate and the vehicle veered out of control. 

Saturday’s launch showed SpaceX had solved that problem, even if both stages were ultimately lost, according to SpaceX Principal Integration Engineer John Insprucker, one of the commentators during SpaceX’s livestream of Saturday’s launch. 

“AFTS on second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn as we were headed down range over the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

SpaceX successfully hot-stages as Starship separates from Heavy Booster during a second launch of Starship from Starbase launch pad near Boca Chica Beach Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. (Courtesy of SpaceX on X, formerly known as Twitter)

Nonetheless, the liftoff and hot-staging separation — in which the second stage (Starship) engines are lit before separation rather than after, as with the first orbital attempt — went flawlessly, as did the Super Heavy’s flip maneuver and ignition of Starship’s six engines, Insprucker said. 

Kate Tice, SpaceX commentator and Quality Systems Engineering senior manager, described it as “an incredibly successful day” despite the “rapid unscheduled disassembly” of both stages. 

“We knew there was a chance that the booster would not survive, but we’re going to take that data and figure out how we can make the booster better for the next hot stage,” she said. “We got so much data and that will all help us to improve for our next flight.” 

The Federal Aviation Administration released this preliminary statement following the launch: “A mishap occurred during the SpaceX Starship OFT-2 launch from Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, Nov. 18. The anomaly resulted in a loss of the vehicle. No injuries or public property damage have been reported.” 

Per a contract with NASA, SpaceX is developing Starship as a Human Landing System to put U.S. astronauts back on the moon for the first time since 1972, as part of NASA’s Artemis moon program. A senior SpaceX official said early this year that the first crewed Artemis mission could take place as early as 2025, but that about 100 uncrewed test flights would be needed before Starship carries humans for the first time.

A plume forms as SpaceX’s Starship separates from its booster during a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Editor’s note: This story was updated with the full version.