The insect-like vehicle, designed and built by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, had made several flights attached to a crane before Thursday's attempted free-flight.
Morpheus' engines, which burn liquid oxygen and methane, appeared to ignite as planned, lifting the 1,750-pound (794 kg) vehicle into the air. But a few seconds later, Morpheus rolled over on its side and plummeted to the ground.
NASA video showed the vehicle engulfed in flames and then rocked by a spectacular explosion, presumably due to the fuel tanks rupturing.
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“"Failures such as these were anticipated prior to the test, and are part of the development process for any complex spaceflight hardware," NASA said in a statement.
An investigation is under way.