A SpaceX Starship rocket exploded on Thursday, minutes after liftoff from its launch pad in South Texas. The spacecraft, the most powerful launch vehicle ever, failed to reach orbit, but it wasn’t a fiasco for the private spaceflight company.
Before the launch, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, lowered expectations, saying that it might take several tries before the Starship made it to this test flight, which was supposed to reach speeds enough to enter orbit before crashing into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
But the launch had a number of significant accomplishments, as the missile flew for four minutes and completely ditched the launch pad before it began to crash, culminating in a high-altitude explosion. The short trip generated reams of data for the engineers to understand how the car was performing.
“If we get any information that allows us to improve the design of upcoming builds of Starship, that’s a success,” Musk said Sunday during an audio discussion with Twitter users about the test flight. “It’s pure, pure 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, and the latest launch concluded successfully on Wednesday.
Thursday’s countdown at the launch site in south Texas, near Brownsville, continued smoothly through the morning until the last half minute, when it was paused for a few minutes while SpaceX engineers worked out technical issues. Employees at SpaceX’s California headquarters began cheering loudly as the countdown resumed.
At 9:33 a.m. ET, the 33 engines on the Super Heavy booster ignited in a huge cloud of fire, smoke, and dust, and the spacecraft slowly lifted. After about a minute, the missile went through a period of maximum aerodynamic pressure, which is one of the critical moments for launching any missile.
But video of the missile captured flashes as several engines fail in the Super Heavy boost stage, and the car begins to spiral downward.
“It doesn’t appear to be a token situation,” SpaceX engineer John Innsbrucker said during the company’s launch livestream.
The Starship’s upper-stage vehicle apparently did not separate from the booster, and four minutes after liftoff, the automatic flight termination system destroyed the rocket, ending the flight in a fireball.
The launch delivered what SpaceX promised of “guaranteed excitement.”
Then, Mr. Musk extended his congratulations to the SpaceX team on Twitter. “I learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months,” he said.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also offered congratulations. “Every great achievement throughout history requires some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward,” Mr. Nelson wrote on Twitter.
Thursday’s launch of the Starship averted the worst outcome of an explosion on the launchpad, which would have required extensive repairs. Once engineers determine what went wrong, they can incorporate the changes into future spacecraft tests.
Still, the failure raises questions about how close SpaceX will be to getting a spacecraft to serve as a lunar lander for astronauts on NASA’s Artemis III mission, which will launch near the moon’s south pole. This mission will require a series of successful spacecraft launches over a short period of time to not only launch the lunar rover but also bring in enough propellant so that it can reach lunar orbit where the NASA crew will aboard for the moon landing.
However, SpaceX has a history of learning from mistakes. The company’s motto is basically, “Fail Fast, but Learn Faster.”
Traditional airlines have tried to anticipate and prevent as many failures as possible early on. But this approach takes money and time and can lead to increased vehicle design. Instead, SpaceX is like a Silicon Valley software company – starting with an imperfect product that can be quickly improved.
In the past, SpaceX has learned from its failures. When it attempted to start the descent of the Falcon 9 boosters, the first few hit hard and exploded. With each attempt, SpaceX engineers tweaked the systems. After the first successful landing, more soon followed. Today, it’s a rare surprise if the booster landing fails.
Two years ago, the company took a similar approach to fine-tuning landing procedures for Starship. In a series of tests, prototypes of the spacecraft rocketed to an altitude of about six miles before shutting down their engines. Its belly then retracted through the atmosphere to slow its rate of fall before tilting back to vertical and firing its engines again for descent. The first few ended explosively before one attempt finally succeeded.
SpaceX, as one of the most valuable private companies, has a large financial cushion to absorb setbacks, unlike in the early days when the first three launches of its parent rocket, the tiny Falcon 1, failed to reach orbit. Mr. Musk gathered enough money and spare parts for a fourth launch attempt. If it had failed, SpaceX would have been out of business.
It worked, and SpaceX has succeeded in nearly all of its endeavors since then, even when it sometimes fails at first.
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