Spaceship explosion is a setback, but not a total failure for SpaceX and Musk

Spaceship explosion is a setback, but not a total failure for SpaceX and Musk

Spaceship explosion is a setback, but not a total failure for SpaceX and Musk

SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded Thursday, minutes after lifting off from a launch pad in southern Texas. The rocket, the most powerful ever built, failed to reach orbit but provided important lessons for the private spaceflight company as it worked towards a more successful mission.

At 9:33 a.m. Eastern Time, the Super Heavy Thruster engines ignited in a massive cloud of fire, smoke, and dust, and Starship slowly rose. About a minute later, the rocket passed through a period of maximum aerodynamic pressure, one of the crucial times for any rocket launch. Soon after, it began to tumble before exploding in a ball of fire over the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite the spirited outcome of the mission, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson praised the undertaking. “Every great achievement in history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward,” Nelson wrote on Twitter.

The space agency is relying on SpaceX to build a version of Starship that will carry two astronauts from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface on its Artemis III mission. There was great anticipation for the flight, which had been delayed from Monday because the gargantuan rocket could one day carry huge amounts of cargo and many people into space.

Before the launch, which had no one on board and aimed to validate whether the design of the rocket system is sound, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, had eased expectations. He said it could take several tries before Starship makes a successful test flight.

But the launch hit a number of milestones, with the rocket flying for four minutes and well away from the launch pad. The brief flight produced tons of data allowing engineers to understand the performance of the vehicle.

“It may seem like that to some people, but it’s not a failure,” said Daniel Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a former top NASA official. “It’s a learning experience.”

Still, the flight was not a complete success. The flight plan called for the Starship spacecraft to reach a higher altitude of about 150 miles before plunging into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii about 90 minutes later. And it remains to be seen how the outcome of Thursday’s flight might affect NASA’s schedule, which optimistically projects that the first moon landing for astronauts aboard Starship will occur in late 2025.

When SpaceX began building Starship, it was driven by Mr. Musk’s dream of one day sending people to live on Mars, a venture that would require transporting massive amounts of supplies to succeed.

But entrepreneurs and futurists think closer to home. A gargantuan, fully reusable vehicle would cut the cost of sending things into space, leading some to imagine how Starship could carry gigantic space telescopes to peer into the cosmos, or squadrons of robots to explore other worlds. . Others are designing larger satellites that will be less expensive because they won’t have to use expensive components currently needed to accommodate the size and weight constraints imposed by today’s rockets.

“Flying rockets and reusing them has huge potential to change the game and orbit transportation,” said Phil Larson, who served as White House space adviser during the Obama administration and later worked on efforts to communications at SpaceX. “And it could enable whole new classes of missions.”

Despite the setback, SpaceX remains the dominant company in global spaceflight. Its rockets have already traveled into space 25 times in 2023, with the most recent launch successfully concluding on Wednesday.

Thursday’s countdown at the South Texas launch site near the town of Brownsville went smoothly through the morning until the last half minute, when it was interrupted for a few minutes while SpaceX engineers worked out technical issues. Employees at SpaceX’s California headquarters began cheering loudly as the countdown resumed.

Then, as a cloud of exhaust rose around the rocket, it took off.

“It looked really good coming off the pad, and it looked really good for a while,” Mr Dumbacher said.

In an update, SpaceX said the rocket reached a height of about 24 miles above the Gulf of Mexico. Video from the rocket captured flashes as several of the 33 engines failed on the spacecraft’s lower portion, the Super Heavy booster. This proved to be too much for the guidance system to compensate for, and the vehicle began to tumble in a corkscrew trajectory.

“It doesn’t seem like a nominal situation,” John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer, reported during the company’s live launch broadcast.

The upper-stage Starship vehicle apparently did not separate from the booster, and four minutes after liftoff, the automated flight termination system destroyed the rocket, ending the flight in a ball of fire.

The launch delivered on SpaceX’s promise of “guaranteed excitement.” And it avoided the worst case scenario of an explosion on the launch pad, which would have required major repairs.

Mr. Musk praised the SpaceX team on Twitter. “I learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months,” he said.

Karl Kriegh, 69, and his wife traveled from Colorado for the launch and then lingered on the beach at South Padre Island, where viewers caught the flight from a safe distance.

“I’m so glad I lived to see this,” he said. “It was incredibly dramatic, one of those things on the to-do list.”

Carlos Huertas, 42, a stage technician who lives in Los Angeles, was on the beach wearing a t-shirt sold by SpaceX that read “Occupy Mars.”

“I thought everything was fine until I heard it had exploded,” he said. He added that he felt “a bit disappointed even though we knew it was a big possibility” and said he hoped to see another launch soon.

Heavy rockets like Starship are inherently more complex and harder to develop than smaller rockets, just as building an aircraft carrier takes a lot more work than a modest yacht. Additionally, by aiming to make all parts of the spacecraft reusable and able to relaunch within hours of landing, SpaceX is attempting an engineering challenge that goes beyond what has been accomplished in the past 60 years. of the space age.

It’s no surprise to pundits that SpaceX didn’t fully succeed on the first try.

“They might have a few questions about why some of the engines may not have worked,” Dumbacher said. “They’ll look into it, they’ll find a solution, and they’ll come back next time and they’ll fix those issues and they’ll move on to the next ending, eventually they’ll fly it all the way into orbit. I’m fully convinced of that.

However, SpaceX is used to learning from its mistakes. The company’s mantra is basically, “Fail fast, but learn faster.”

Traditional aerospace companies have tried to anticipate and prevent as many failures as possible in advance. But this approach takes time and money and can lead to oversized vehicles. SpaceX is more like a Silicon Valley software company — starting with a flawed product that can be quickly improved.

When he tried to start landing Falcon 9 boosters, the first ones hit too hard and exploded. With each attempt, SpaceX engineers tweaked the systems. After its first successful landing, others soon followed. Today, it’s a rare surprise if a make-up landing fails.

A few years ago, the company took a similar approach to refining Starship’s landing procedure. In a series of tests, Starship prototypes took off at an altitude of about six miles before shutting down its engines. It then passed through the atmosphere to slow its rate of descent before returning to vertical and restarting its engines for landing. The first ones ended explosively before an attempt finally succeeded.

SpaceX, as one of the most valuable private companies, has a significant financial cushion to absorb setbacks, unlike its early days when the first three launches of its parent rocket, the tiny Falcon 1, failed. managed to reach orbit. Mr Musk has gathered just enough cash and parts for a fourth launch attempt. If he had failed, SpaceX would have gone bankrupt. Falcon 1’s fourth launch was successful, and SpaceX has been successful in almost every effort since, even when it sometimes fails at first.

Big NASA programs like the Space Launch System, which NASA used on an uncrewed mission to the moon in November, don’t usually have the same luxury of exploding as you learn.

“Government programs are not allowed to operate that way because of this, because of the way all stakeholders can watch and tell you no,” Dumbacher said.

Back on the beach, those who showed up for the launch were enthusiastic about the day’s outcome.

“Would it have been great if it hadn’t exploded?” said Lauren Posey, 34. ” Yeah. But it was still great.”

James Dobbin contributed reporting from South Padre Island, Texas.


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