SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded on Thursday, minutes after lifting off from a launchpad in South Texas. The spacecraft, the most powerful ever to launch, failed to reach orbit, but it was not a total failure for the private spaceflight company. Before the launch, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, had tamped down expectations, saying it might take several tries before Starship succeeds at this test flight, which was to reach speeds fast enough to enter orbit before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. But the launch achieved a number of important milestones, with the rocket flying for four minutes and getting well clear of the launchpad before it started to tumble, culminating in a high-altitude blast. The brief flight produced reams of data for engineers to understand how the vehicle performed. “If we get any information that allows us to improve the design of upcoming builds of Starship, then it is a success,” Mr. Musk said on Sunday during an audio discussion with Twitter users about the test flight. “It is purely, purely learning.” Despite the setback, SpaceX remains the dominant company in global spaceflight. Its Falcon 9 rockets have already traveled to space 25 times in 2023, with the most recent launch concluding successfully on Wednesday. The countdown on Thursday at the launch South site in Texas, near the city of Brownsville, proceeded smoothly through the morning until the last half a minute, when it was paused for a few minutes while SpaceX engineers resolved technical issues. Employees at SpaceX headquarters in California started cheering loudly w 9:33 am Eastern time, the 33 engines on the Super Heavy booster ignited in a huge cloud of fire, smoke and dust, and the Starship rose slowly upward. About a minute later, the rocket passed through a period of maximum aerodynamic pressure, one of the crucial moments for the launch of any rocket. But video of the rocket captured flashes as several of the engines on the Super Heavy booster stage failed, and the vehicle started tumbling in a corkscrew path.”This does not appear to be a nominal situation,” John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer, reported during the company’s livestream of the launch. The upper-stage Starship vehicle apparently did not separate from the booster, and four minutes after liftoff, the automatic flight termination system destroyed the ingrocket, end the flight in a fireball. The launch lived up to SpaceX’s promise of “excitement guaranteed.” Afterward, Mr. Musk offered congratulations to the SpaceX team on Twitter. “Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months,” he said. Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, also offered congratulations. “Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward,” Mr. Nelson wrote on Twitter. The Starship launch on Thursday ed at least avoid worst-case outcome of exploding on the launchpad, which would have required extensive repairs. Once engineers determine what went wrong, they can incorporate changes in future Starship tests. Still, the failure raises questions about how soon SpaceX can get a Starship serve ready as a lunar lander for the astronauts of NASA’s Artemis III mission, which is to set down near the moon’s south pole. That mission would require a series of successful Starship launches over a short period of time to not only launch the lunar spacecraft but also to bring up enough propellant so that it can get to the lunar orbit where the NASA crew will board it to go down to the moon. However, SpaceX has a history of learning from mistakes. The company’s mantra is essentially, “Fail fast, but learn faster.”Traditional aerospace companies have tried to anticipate and prevent as many failures as possible ahead of time. But that approach takes money and time and can lead to vehicles that are overdesigned. SpaceX instead is more like a Silicon Valley software company — starting with an imperfect product that can be improved quickly. In the past, SpaceX has learned from its failures. When it tried to start landing Falcon 9 boosters, the first few hit too hard and exploded. With each attempt, SpaceX engineers tweaked the systems. its first successful landing, more soon followed. Today, it is a rare surprise if a booster landing fails. A couple of years ago, the company took a similar approach to fine-tuning the landing procedure for Starship. Prototypes of Starship lifted off to an altitude of about six miles before shutting off its engines. It then belly flopped through the atmosphere to slow its rate of fall before tilting back to vertical and firing its engines again for landing. The first few ly ended one attempt finally succeeded. SpaceX, as one of the most valuable privately held companies, possesses a large financial cushion to absorb setbacks, unlike its early days when the first three launches of its original rocket, the small Falcon 1, failed. Mr. Musk scraped together just enough money and parts for a fourth launch attempt. Had it failed, SpaceX would have gone out of business. It succeeded, and SpaceX has succeeded in almost all of its endeavors since then, even when it at times fails first.