SpaceX's second attempt at orbital Starship launch ends in fireball

'Rapid unscheduled disassembly' could apply to much of Musk's world

SpaceX's second attempt at getting the combined Starship and Super Heavy booster to orbit got further than its try earlier this week. That said, the two stages failed to separate, leading to yet another explosive end for a Starship flight.

Aside from a brief ground hold to finalize a pressure and purging issue, Starship's pre-launch sequence at Starbase in Texas went off flawlessly, but things went wrong at the 2 minute 50 second mark with the Super Heavy booster engines not cutting off, leading to the combined craft going into a spin instead of performing a single flip for separation.

A minute later, the whole thing went up in a fireball.

SpaceX fans will no doubt be along in a moment to say it's OK the thing rapidly came apart and exploded, like so many things in CEO Elon Musk's life, as it's a useful and vital way to improve the tech for actual human use. It's not expected to get everything right first time.

And it's possible for both above paragraphs to be correct and fair to state. See below for how it all unfolded.

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Today's launch attempt was the second of the week, with one on Monday being scrubbed due to a pressurization valve malfunction. SpaceX made the decision 17 minutes before launch to scrub liftoff in favor of performing a wet dress rehearsal, which involves fully prepping the ship for launch and ending the countdown sequence just prior to ignition.

The problem valve on the Super Heavy booster had some moisture in it, and it froze up when supercooled liquid oxygen was introduced into the tank, SpaceX said in pre-launch coverage.

If everything had gone according to plan, Starship and the 33-engine Super Heavy booster rocket would fly together for around three minutes, at which point the booster would perform a spin maneuver to position itself for a water landing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Starship was supposed to orbit Earth for around an hour, and re-enter Earth's atmosphere one hour and 17 minutes after liftoff. To spare any additional complications, SpaceX planned to forego a vertical landing in favor of a splashdown off the coast of Hawaii, but the craft never made it that far.

Starship hasn't had the most successful history, with its previous launches mostly ending in failures described by SpaceX as "rapid unscheduled disassembly," a.k.a. exploding. SpaceX finally got a successful launch and landing out of Starship in 2021, the last time the craft has flown.

Once it's placed into service, Starship will be the launch vehicle for the larger second-generation Starlink satellites and has also been contracted by NASA to deliver astronauts to the Moon as part of the Artemis IV mission. That launch is scheduled for 2027, giving SpaceX precious little time to perfect Starship for human passengers.

But every disaster is a learning experience, said SpaceX quality systems engineering manager Kate Tice, who noted everything after liftoff was "icing on the cake" for the launch. 

"Success is anything we learn that helps us with future builds of Starship," Tice said. Hopefully they can build a better Starship soon, or NASA might have to look elsewhere for its Moon mission craft. ®

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