Elon Musk’s Explosive Day

First SpaceX blew up a rocket. Then Musk blew up Twitter’s verification system.

At left, a photograph of SpaceX's Starship rocket flying in mid-air, engines blazing; at right, a photograph of white smoke left behind after Starship exploded
Left: Starship soaring through the sky. Right: The aftermath of the explosion. (Patrick T. Fallon / Getty)

The giant new spaceship was all fueled up and ready to go. Its stainless-steel exterior gleamed in the South Texas sun. Everyone gathered at the launch site was elated to witness the first uncrewed test flight of Starship, the futuristic spacecraft that Elon Musk wants to someday use to take people to Mars. The crowd erupted in cheers as the 33-engine rocket booster below the spacecraft ignited its engines and rose from the launchpad, generating twice the thrust of the Saturn V rocket that propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon more than 50 years ago.

But as Starship climbed higher, toward the edge of space and the next move in the sequence, something went wrong. The spaceship and the rocket booster failed to separate as intended, and started tumbling. Four minutes after a beautiful liftoff, Starship exploded over the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX engineers called it a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” a cheeky understatement. And despite the fact that blowing up a rocket sure looks like failure, they counted the flight test as a win. They’re sort of right. Explosions, although disappointing, happen during rocket testing, and SpaceX is prepared for them: Its South Texas facility is essentially a spaceshipyard, with more prototypes on the way.

The test is a dramatic event in what is perhaps the most surreal chapter in human spaceflight so far. Starship is a nitro-cold-brew shot of spaceflight dreams: It is the biggest, tallest, and most powerful rocket system in the world. Starship is more powerful than NASA’s own giant rocket, which goes by the slightly less dreamy name of Space Launch System, and which is expected to transport crews to the moon in this decade. A modified version of Starship is set to bring those astronauts to the lunar surface. Meanwhile, private astronauts-to-be have already purchased tickets for future Starship loops around the moon. Even after the fiery drama today, SpaceX is, wildly but surely, one tiny step closer to making missions to Mars a reality.

Today’s test is made even more surreal by its irreverent main character. Last week, when SpaceX announced that it would make a launch attempt on April 17, Musk joked, “I have a feeling it might get delayed 3 days …” to April 20. You know: 4/20, “weed day,” when people light up more than just rockets. And sure enough, Musk got his well-timed blaze. (Monday’s launch was scrubbed because of a frozen valve in the rocket’s booster.) Musk appears to be marking 4/20 in a big way at Twitter too: Today was the day that the platform finally removed blue check marks from users who don’t pay its $8-a-month subscription. It’ll be the second thing he blows up today.

Marijuana has been a cornerstone of Musk’s humor for years. In 2018, Musk tweeted that he was considering taking the publicly traded Tesla private for $420 a share, which led to $40 million in federal fraud charges. A few years later, Musk, in his seemingly complete lack of restraint, amended the starting price of a Tesla Model S to $69,420. And yet, he is the face of some of the most ambitious efforts in American spaceflight in the coming years, including taxpayer-funded NASA projects.

Musk had a comparatively reserved persona when SpaceX was just getting off the ground, figuratively and literally, 15 years ago. Back then, people in the spaceflight industry, including folks at NASA, scoffed at the company. Very few insiders thought that a start-up could seriously compete with long-standing NASA contractors in the aerospace business.

Then, about a decade ago, SpaceX started launching cargo capsules on resupply missions to the International Space Station. In the time since, it has become the most successful spaceflight company in the world. Professional astronauts use it to reach the space station, and so do very wealthy private astronauts. SpaceX launched the NASA spacecraft that smashed into an asteroid last year, and it will launch the NASA spacecraft that will explore Jupiter’s icy moon Europa next year. The rich businessman who once chartered a SpaceX trip into orbit wants to use the technology to lift Hubble, the famed space telescope, into a higher orbit to prolong its operations. SpaceX is everywhere. And so is its founder, multitasking between overseeing rocket launches and turning Twitter into a bug-ridden catalog of far-right rhetoric.

SpaceX said that Starship broke apart today after the rocket, sensing failure, autonomously blew itself up to avoid endangering anyone below. At least it didn’t destroy the launchpad, which was Musk’s biggest concern—it would have taken several months to rebuild. SpaceX will try again in “a few months,” Musk tweeted.

If today’s test had gone further, Starship would have reached orbit, flown around part of the Earth, reentered the atmosphere, and crashed into the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Hawaii. The rocket booster would have fallen nearby, into the Gulf waters. The eventual Starship system, though, is meant to be entirely reusable.

As I’ve written before, the craft’s design verges on science fiction. Starship is unlike any other space-transportation system in history, especially in how it is supposed to return to Earth. The spaceship will not land on a runway like a plane or parachute down to open seas; rather, it will turn itself around after reentry and land upright, its nose pointed to the sky. Whatever else Musk has detonated, he has created a company that might actually pull off that stunt.