The most formidable rocket ever constructed, launched into the sky on its mission.
On Saturday, the early parts of the operation progressed without any issues. However, the initial stage unexpectedly fell apart shortly after being detached from the Starship upper stage. The Starship then self-destructed as it approached outer space.
SpaceX considered it a valuable learning opportunity, but it was their second consecutive unsuccessful attempt to launch the Starship upper stage into space, causing great disappointment.
This is a significant setback for NASA, as they are relying on the Starship from the rocket company to transport Artemis astronauts to the moon’s surface within the next few years.
SpaceX believes in flying as soon as possible and using any mistakes as learning opportunities. However, NASA needs to see a consistent record of successful missions before they deem it safe to send astronauts on board. Although SpaceX is likely to fix the issues that caused Saturday’s flight to fail, each delay adds a risk to NASA’s timeline for landing on the moon.
A recent social media post stated, “By learning from tests like this one, we can achieve success. Today’s test will contribute to improving the reliability of Starship as SpaceX works towards enabling human life on multiple planets.”
Bill Nelson, the administrator of NASA, was also in favor.
“Congratulations to the teams who have made advancements during today’s flight test,” he posted on Twitter. “Space travel is an exciting journey that requires determination and innovative thinking. This test serves as a chance to gain knowledge and take flight once more.”
Shattering the morning calm at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site on the Texas Gulf Coast, the Super Heavy’s 33 methane-burning Raptor engines ignited with a torrent of flame at 8:03 a.m. EST, instantly engulfing the rocket in billowing clouds of dust and steam.
The 397-foot-tall rocket, weighing 11 million pounds, ascended into the sky at a slow pace, consuming over 40,000 pounds of methane and liquid oxygen per second. This spectacle delighted numerous residents, tourists, and reporters watching from South Padre Island.
The launch occurred approximately seven months following a test flight on April 20.
After four minutes of liftoff, due to various failures in the first stage engines, issues arose with separating the Starship from the Super Heavy and resulted in a disastrous tumble. The maximum altitude reached was 24 miles.
On its second attempt, the rocket was able to travel a greater distance and many of the issues that caused the first test flight to fail were resolved. The 33 Raptor engines on the first stage all fired successfully during the boost phase, and the new “hot staging” system, which involves igniting the Starship’s engines before separating from the first stage, functioned as intended.
Shortly after being separated, the initial stage of the mission turned over and started preparing for a controlled descent into the Gulf of Mexico, near the coast of Texas. However, it quickly disintegrated, potentially because of the strain caused by the hot-staging method.
The Starship kept ascending into space with the help of its six Raptor engines. Everything went smoothly until approximately eight and a half minutes into the journey, when communication with the rocket was lost. Although the vehicle had already disappeared from the view of long-distance tracking cameras, a sudden disturbance in the atmosphere could indicate that the rocket had been destroyed.
John Insprucker, an engineer at SpaceX, informed us that we no longer have access to the data from the second stage.
The founder of SpaceX, Musk, was spotted surrounded by flight controllers as he analyzed computer screens in an attempt to understand the situation.
Shortly after, Insprucker announced, “The automated flight termination system on the second stage seems to have activated very late during the descent as we were moving towards the Gulf of Mexico.”
The Federal Aviation Administration announced that it will play a role in all aspects of the mishap investigation and must give approval for the final report, which will include any necessary corrective measures.
The statement stated that the Starship Super Heavy vehicle will resume flights once the FAA confirms that any aspect of the incident does not pose a threat to public safety.
What was successful – and what were the failures?
The cause of the Super Heavy booster’s destruction and the potential failure of the Starship upper stage during or after engine shutdown remains unclear. However, according to SpaceX analysts, the main objective of the flight, which was to test the hot-staging mechanism for separating the upper and lower stages, seemed to be successful.
In addition, all 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy and the six on the Starship seemed to function as expected while the vehicles were visible. The performance of other upgrades made after the April incident on Saturday is still unknown.
NASA is spending billions for a variant of the Starship to carry Artemis astronauts back to the surface of the moon. SpaceX is counting on the rocket to vastly expand its fleet of Starlink internet satellites and to power eventual low-cost government and commercial flights to the moon, Mars and beyond in keeping with Musk’s drive to make humanity a “multi-planet species.”
Several test flights will be necessary to show the necessary reliability for astronaut flights. The exact duration of this process is currently unknown. Despite not being a complete success, Saturday’s launch did prove satisfactory engine performance and successful stage separation.
During the April launch, the launch platform sustained significant damage, the Super Heavy experienced several unexpected engine shutdowns, the stage separation mechanism malfunctioned, and the rocket’s self-destruct system had a delayed activation.
The rocket only reached a peak height of 24 miles, which is much lower than NASA’s designated “space boundary” of 50 miles. It then fell back to Earth and burst into flames due to the burning propellant.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) conducted an investigation into the incident and identified several underlying reasons for the failure. They also outlined 63 steps that SpaceX must implement in order to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.
According to Musk, the company made “more than a thousand” modifications in order to enhance safety and performance. After conducting a final evaluation of the rocket’s potential impact on local wildlife, the company was granted the necessary FAA launch permit earlier this week.
In addition to using hot staging, SpaceX also implemented a strong water deluge system at the launch pad to decrease the intense noise and impact from the engines’ ignition and combined thrust. This was in response to the significant damage caused to the pad’s base during the April launch, which resulted in debris made of steel and concrete being scattered in the surrounding vicinity.
Some notable enhancements include the substitution of hydraulic actuators with an electric engine steering system and an upgraded self-destruct system that operates more quickly.
The most powerful rocket in the world
Elon Musk is convinced that the Super Heavy-Starship will usher in a new era of space transportation.
This is the biggest and most powerful rocket ever constructed, measuring 40 stories high and weighing over 11 million pounds when filled with fuel.
The rocket can produce an incredible 16.7 million pounds of force by burning methane and liquid oxygen, which is more than double the strength of NASA’s Space Launch System and the renowned Apollo-era Saturn 5.
The Super Heavy initial stage measures 230 feet in height, while the Starship upper stage, which can transport cargo, passengers, or both, stands at 164 feet tall. It is equipped with six Raptor engines and has the capacity to lift up to 150 tons of cargo to low-Earth orbit.
NASA has deemed it vital for the success of their Artemis moon mission to ensure consistent flights of the Super Heavy-Starship. In 2021, they awarded SpaceX with a $2.9 billion agreement to create a modified version of the Starship’s upper stage, allowing for safe transportation of astronauts to the moon’s surface within the next two to three years.
In order to transport a Starship to the moon, SpaceX needs to first replenish its fuel while in low-Earth orbit. This process involves using robotic technology to transfer large amounts of extremely cold cryogenic propellants. The exact number of tankers needed is currently unspecified, but NASA leaders have stated that more than twelve will be necessary for each Starship journey to the moon.
The agreement between NASA and SpaceX states that a lunar test flight must be completed before astronauts can attempt a landing. The Artemis team is still aiming for a first lunar landing in late 2025 with astronauts on board, but this timeline is highly unlikely given the slow progress being made by SpaceX in developing the Starship system.
There is currently no information about when SpaceX plans to launch paying passengers on their new rocket. Despite NASA’s lunar program, there are already three civilian missions scheduled.
Elon Musk, the person responsible for orchestrating the maiden voyage of a privately funded Crew Dragon spacecraft to low Earth orbit in 2019, intends to join the crew on the first manned orbital mission of a Starship as part of his Polaris Dawn initiative.
Billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, from Japan, has bought a trip to the International Space Station in 2021 from the Russians. He has also arranged for a privately funded trip called “Dear Moon” on a Starship, with himself, an assistant, and 10 artists and influencers, to travel around the moon.
A third non-military Starship journey, with 12 passengers onboard, has been reserved. One of these passengers is Dennis Tito, who has previous experience on the space station and will be accompanied by his spouse. Tito paid approximately $20 million to Russia for a trip to the International Space Station in 2001 and is eager to return to space and have his wife join him in the experience.
The price for a privately chartered Starship flight by SpaceX is currently unknown.