If you believe them, and some of the US press has, the explosion was an expected distribution feature. Musk admitted that it was a coin toss if the explosion would happen. But somehow, that would still beat SpaceX's publicly broadcast goals, which just goes to show that if you set the bar low enough you can always be a winner.
Kate Tice, SpaceX quality systems engineering manager, said on the company's launch webcast. "If we lift off and clear the pad, we're going to have a win"... followed by a big bang we guess
The Starship rocket lifted off from the company's launch site near Boca Chica, Texas, around 6:33 a.m. Pacific time. After passing through the moment of peak mechanical stress on the rocket and ascending about 24 miles above the Gulf of Mexico, the Starship spacecraft was set to separate from the Super Heavy first-stage booster.
But instead of separating, the still-conjoined rocket turned into a Catherine wheel before exploding in what Starlink called a "rapid unscheduled disassembly." SpaceX later confirmed that the explosion was due to Starship's autonomous flight termination system, a safety measure embedded in the rocket's software that destroys the launch vehicle if it senses that its course or performance is awry or unsafe.
Musk congratulated the team on the launch via Twitter, saying they "learned a lot for next test launch in a few months."
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson didn't seem too concerned about the outcome of Thursday's test flight, tweeting, "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."
SpaceX is contracted with NASA to develop Starship as a lunar lander for the Artemis moon programme which will hopefully do a little more than provide a new crater for Musk's ego.