The rocket’s Super Heavy booster exploded shortly after lift-off and the rocket remained intact for a short while before engineers confirmed it had also disappeared.
Despite losing the rocket on its second test flight in the space of seven months, the mission is still being considered a ‘success’ by SpaceX.
Starship experienced what engineers have called a ‘rapid unscheduled disassembly’ during ascent – which means it was not supposed to happen.
The space aircraft lifted off from the coastal town of Boca Chica, Texas at 7am local time (1pm UK time).
A SpaceX engineer said the team ‘lost the data’ from the second stage of the flight but was ultimately lost once again.
‘We have lost the data from the second stage,’ the engineer said.
‘We heard a call out that we were internal guidance, which means we’re getting near the end of the approximately six-minute burn of Starship, but we haven’t got any more data since then.
‘So we would not be into coast phase, we would not be able to come back in an hour or so and possibly get ready for re-entry.
‘However, what we do know right now is we had an on time launch at 7am. We got through the boats – the first stage looked beautiful with 33 raptor engines firing.
‘We got the hot staging – the thing that we really wanted to see. We saw the separation, we saw the flip manoeuvre, we saw the light up of the six raptor engines on Starship and it headed away.
‘Everything really looked good, but what we do believe now is that the automated flight termination system on second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn as we were headed downrange out over the Gulf of Mexico.
‘But the real topping on the cake today… that successful lift off.’
NASA chief Bill Nelson wrote on X, formerly Twitter, after the launch: ‘Congrats to the teams who made progress on today’s flight test.
‘Spaceflight is a bold adventure demanding a can-do spirit and daring innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn—then fly again.’
Mr Nelson added that together ‘NASA and SpaceX will return humanity to the Moon, Mars and beyond’.
Standing at 120m tall, Starship is the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built.
Debris from the rocket spewed out and scattered into the Gulf of Mexico waters.
Engineers at Musk’s SpaceX company have since made ‘more than a thousand’ changes to Starship in an attempt to improve its reliability.
Like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, the vertical take-off and landing Starship system is designed to be fully reusable.
Somewhat confusingly named, it is comprised of two parts – Starship and the Super Heavy booster.
The first stage, the Super Heavy booster, provides the initial thrust for liftoff from 33 Raptor engines.
The second stage, Starship, is designed to carry cargo and crew into space. It will also deliver Nasa’s Artemis pilots to the lunar surface – the Super Heavy booster will not be needed to take-off again because of the lower gravity on the Moon.
However, Nasa’s 2025 timeline for sending humans back to the Moon looked in jeopardy following April’s failed Starship test.
The aim was to launch the entire system, with Starship achieving orbit for around 90 minutes, and the Super Heavy returning to the Gulf of Mexico, dropping into the sea in a proof of concept mission rather than returning to the launch pad.
However, around three minutes after launch, the two stages failed to separate and Starship fell into a tail spin, forcing ground control to detonate the spacecraft – or, as SpaceX’s principal integration engineer John Insprucker called it, a ‘rapid unscheduled disassembly’.
Nevertheless, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk called the test a success, reining in expectations beforehand that the main hope was for Starship to clear the tower without blowing up the launchpad.
Unfortunately it didn’t, instead blasting a hole in it which showered the area and neighbouring Lower Rio Grand Valley National Wildlife Refuge with debris – prompting environmental groups to sue the Federal Aviation Authority for failing to consider the environment before granting SpaceX a licence to launch.
It took seven months for the company to make the more than 1,000 modifications after the launch and to receive a new licence.
Of course, the April explosion was far from the first Starship suffered.
The journey began with the small ‘Spacehopper’ prototype, which hovered just 120m off the ground before landing.
Later iterations didn’t fare so well, with two vehicles, SN8 and SN9, landing too quickly and exploding on impact. SN10 appeared to land safely but exploded shortly after due to a fuel leak caused by the landing.
SN11 broke up on its descent.
SpaceX is nothing if not determined though, and with its lofty ambitions of putting humans on Mars, the journey continues.