Above: Starship launches from SpaceX’s starbase test facility in Boca Chica, Texas on April 20. Credit: SpaceX

It looked like failure, but they called it a success. SpaceX’s Starship—the most powerful rocket ever built—took flight during its first orbital test run on the morning of Thursday, April 20, lofting the experimental spacecraft more than 24 miles in the sky over the Gulf of Mexico before coming to an abrupt and explosive end.

Roughly three minutes after launch, the Super Heavy first stage rocket had spent all its fuel but failed to separate from the Starship module. “The vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble,” SpaceX reported in an update after the launch. Clocking four minutes of flight time and losing altitude fast, Starship detonated in a fiery cloud of metal and gas. SpaceX called it “a rapid unscheduled disassembly,” which is engineer-speak for activating self-destruct mode. If Starship had completed its flight plan, it would’ve circled the Earth before reentering the atmosphere and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawai’i.

Despite falling short of orbit, SpaceX teams were thrilled with the outcome. Clearing the launchpad marked a major milestone in the project, and data gathered during the flight will be used to inform the next test.

“With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today that will help us improve on future flights of Starship,” SpaceX tweeted after the launch.

The maiden orbital launch also built upon years of explosive test flights and hurdles of red tape—a testament to SpaceX’s determination to get Starship up and running for SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. Musk said the next launch attempt for Starship will happen in a few months. However, since the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded the spacecraft indefinitely pending a routine public safety investigation, it’s not clear exactly when.

The success of Starship is crucial to NASA’s Artemis program, returning humans to the Moon for the first time in 50 years. The agency has contracted SpaceX to provide a Starship as a lunar lander that will ferry astronauts to the lunar surface as early as 2025. But before that happens, SpaceX must prove Starship safe for human flight—an ambitious goal the company is on track to fulfill if it continues on its current flight path.