As the engines of Starship’s booster lit up during the first launch in April, a massive brown cloud spread outward from beneath the rocket and rose into the sky.
That was not just exhaust from the engines but also dirt, rocks and concrete chunks the size of boulders that the force of the rocket thrust excavated from beneath the launch pedestal.
As Starship rose into the air, it tipped to the side. Three of the booster’s 33 engines had failed to start, and the unbalanced thrust caused the leaning ascent.
Starship cleared the launch tower. But there were signs more was going wrong.
A little over half a minute into the flight, a flash of light could be seen under the rocket, which appeared to be sluggish. A timeline that SpaceX provided before launch said Starship would pass through max-q — the period of maximum atmospheric pressure pushing on the rocket — at 55 seconds, but John L. Insprucker, the SpaceX engineer who narrates the webcasts of many of the company’s most important missions, did not call out that moment until nearly half a minute after the expected time.
Cameras pointed at the bottom of Starship showed 27 bright circles — the flames of the working engines. It seemed that six of the engines had failed.
The booster was to separate from the upper stage at 2 minutes, 52 seconds into flight, but it never did. Instead, Starship started tumbling, and a minute later, explosives meant to destroy a rocket that has gone off course finally exploded. It had reached an altitude of 24 miles above the Gulf of Mexico, far short of reaching orbit.
A week later, Elon Musk, the founder and chief executive of SpaceX, offered preliminary answers about what had gone wrong during a question-and-answer session on Twitter, now renamed X.
“Some good news items here,” he said. “The vehicle’s structural margins appear to be better than we expected,” he said, pointing to the moments of the flight. He added, “The vehicle is actually doing somersaults towards the end and still staying intact.”
Mr. Musk said that, at liftoff, the flight computer shut down three engines that did not appear to be operating properly. Because the Starship is designed to still make orbit even with just 30 engines, the launch was not aborted.
Twenty-seven seconds into the flight, “something bad happened,” Mr. Musk said. An explosion ignited a fire at the bottom of the rocket. Eighty-five seconds into the flight, the rocket lost its ability to point the direction of the rocket engines, essentially losing its ability to steer.
Back on the ground, the liftoff had gouged a giant hole beneath the launch stand.
“We did generate quite the rock tornado at the base of the vehicle,” Mr. Musk said.
Dust carried for miles, settling in nearby Port Isabel, Texas. Concrete chunks landed half a mile from the launch site. But the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said it did not find birds or other wildlife killed in the launch’s aftermath.