In the early hours of Thursday, SpaceX’s Starship was launched from Texas, but shortly after the launch, the 400-foot rocket began to tumble and eventually exploded over the Gulf of Mexico. Despite the unfortunate outcome, the demonstration mission was successful, testing the new rocket’s ability to ignite and clear the pad’s 500-foot tower. However, several of the rocket’s 33 Raptor engines failed to fire up as planned, which led to the rocket’s upper stage and Super Heavy booster failing to separate. The rocket’s breakup was triggered by the flight termination system (FTS), a safety and licensing requirement built into key areas of rockets. But why did the FTS kick in, and what’s different about launches from Florida?

Experts and spectators have speculated that the test flight’s explosive conclusion was the result of aerodynamic forces shearing the vehicle apart or if it was purposefully blown up by the FTS. SpaceX confirmed that the rocket’s breakup was triggered by the FTS, which is designed to be automatically activated if a hardware failure is detected. However, Thursday’s launch from Starbase was unique because it was a test flight of a brand new vehicle with slightly different termination parameters. Previous Starship test flights ended explosively, but they didn’t attempt to reach high altitudes.

In Florida, the Eastern Range (Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and Kennedy Space Center) is overseen by the Space Force’s Space Launch Delta 45, which is partially responsible for certifying termination systems. This means that a launch from Florida might have stricter parameters, and the rocket wouldn’t be allowed to tumble for as long as it did in Texas. Mike Leinbach, NASA’s former space shuttle launch director, explained that every range has “impact limit lines,” which are boundaries projected on a map. If the vehicle goes out of those boundaries, the FTS kicks in.

Abhi Tripathi, director of mission operations at the University of California, Berkeley, Space Sciences Laboratory, said that the termination system could be triggered by various reasons such as loss of thrust, unplanned acceleration, failures with certain components, off-course trajectories, and more. He believes that the rocket already didn’t have enough thrust even before FTS kicked in because several engines were out. Some software trigger said, “Sorry, don’t have enough juice to get to space anymore,” and FTS kicked in.