But even as late night hosts and others joked about the flaming debris that fell out of the sky, space experts and observers cheered the liftoff of the world's most powerful rocket.
"Despite the mission ending in a 'rapid unscheduled disassembly' as the company refers to the outcome, the broader space community sees the launch as a success, and rightfully so in our view," Bank of America analyst Ronald Epstein wrote in a note on Friday.
Several minutes after the unmanned Starship launched at 8:33 a.m. CT in Boca Chica Beach, Texas, the spacecraft failed to disconnect from the Super Heavy rocket, several of its Raptor engines stopped firing, and the vehicle began to spiral in midair before it exploded.
Nevertheless, the launch achieved what it set out to do, Epstein said, "and then some."
Starship climbed some 24 miles before blowing up. And although it didn't reach its goal of space, it did surpass the point of maximum mechanical stress, the analyst noted.
"This was all done on the first launch attempt of the most powerful rocket ever built," Epstein stressed.
The launch earned praise from NASA administrator Bill Nelson, who tweeted that "every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk."
Congrats to @SpaceX on Starship’s first integrated flight test! Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward. Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test—and beyond. https://t.co/ZYsh5VkxsA
— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) April 20, 2023
SpaceX looks up
The ultimate goals of Starship are to deliver satellites into Earth's orbit, travel to the Moon, and make interplanetary voyages to Mars a reality.
There have been a series of test launches that met with varying degrees of success. The launch that took place Thursday was originally set to occur Monday but was rescheduled due to a valve issue.
With 17 million pounds of thrust, Starship's Super Heavy rocket produces double the thrust of the next most powerful launcher, NASA's Space Launch System (SLS). It's propelled by cooled liquid methane and liquid oxygen. It's also remarkably tall, soaring to a height of 394 feet.
That scale and payload capacity could lower the barriers to bringing satellites into low Earth orbit.
According to Epstein, one Starship launch could potentially carry 4,300 small satellites into space, or more than triple the number of satellites launched in 2020. Although finding enough satellites ready to launch at the same time makes that figure unlikely anytime soon, Starship is still expected to drive down costs for the industry.
SpaceX has bigger ambitions for Starship: to transport people to Mars. To that end, engineers are already at work analyzing Thursday's launch.
"With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary," SpaceX tweeted.