SpaceX launched its shiny, bullet-shaped, straight-out-of-science fiction Starship several miles into the air from a remote corner of Texas on Wednesday, but the six-and-a-half minute test flight ended in an explosive fireball at touchdown.
It was the highest and most elaborate flight yet for the rocketship that Elon Musk says could carry people to Mars in as little as six years.
This latest prototype — the first one equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines — was shooting for an altitude of up to eight miles (12.5 kilometres).
That is almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere.
Starship seemed to hit the mark or at least come close. There was no immediate word from SpaceX on how high it went.
The full-scale, stainless steel model — 160 feet (50 metres) tall and 30 feet (9 metres) in diameter — soared out over the Gulf of Mexico.
After about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border.
The Raptor engines reignited for braking and the rocket tilted back upright. Upon touching down, however, the rocketship became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering.
The entire flight — as dramatic and flashy as it gets, even by SpaceX standards — lasted just over six minutes and 40 seconds.
“Awesome test. Congratulations Starship team!” read a scroll across the screen.
Musk kept expectations low going into this first high-altitude attempt by Starship, cautioning earlier this week there was “probably” a one-in-three chance of complete success.