SpaceX celebrates Starship launch as a success – even with the explosion
Test, progress, or mishap – take your pick
SpaceX judged the second launch of its Starship a success after the craft's two launch stages separated and one made it into space, but neither finished their mission.
The Super Heavy first stage booster experienced what SpaceX described as a "rapid unscheduled disassembly" over the Gulf of Mexico at around eight minutes into the intended 90-minute mission.
The private space concern's livestream host, John Insprucker, said engineers believed an automated flight termination command had destroyed the rocket for unknown reasons.
At around ten minutes into the launch, contact was severed with the system's second stage – the Starship spacecraft – which never made its planned apex position just shy of Earth orbit before it plunged off the coast of Hawaii.
SpaceX explained on its website that after the loss of the booster, Starship's six second-stage Raptor engines fired for several minutes, taking it to an altitude of 150 kilometers – well above the Karman line that marks the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space.
Despite the losses, and fiery ends, SpaceX celebrated its successes, including the moment all 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster fired simultaneously – an event achieved for the first time. The engines burned over 40,000 pounds of fuel per second to achieve 17 million pounds of thrust and set off a surreal glow.
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Another first is the mission's use of hot staging - a part of the sequence critical for the spacecraft's separation technique that is expected to increase payload capability, as well as allow for a more continuous thrust profile.
Rather than having an upper stage and booster disconnect without firing engines, hot staging has both parts fire during their separation. In the case of Starship, its six Raptors fired while three of Super Heavy's boosters remained firing.
The tactic has been used by space missions in the past, but the November 18 SpaceX launch was the first time it was included as part of a reusable transport system.
SpaceX posted a video on social media in which the hot staging process is visible.
"Watch the three center engines on Starship's upper stage gimbaling just after separation. Right before they ignite for hot staging, the engines angle themselves outward to direct their exhaust towards the vented interstage before re-centering for ascent," explains the video.
"We saw the separation, we saw the flip maneuver, we saw the light-up of the six Raptor engines on Starship," celebrated Insprucker in the livestream.
"While it didn't happen in a lab or on a test stand, it was absolutely a test. What we did today will provide invaluable data to continue rapidly developing Starship," insisted a ready-to-control-the-narrative SpaceX after the incident.
It is clear that this is the approach the Musky launch outfit is taking towards its engineering – environmental responsibility be damned. Research, design and public relations by destructive testing is an approach many have come to expect from Musk-related products.
Announcers in the live stream prior to the explosion used language designed to hedge bets in case of failure, such as "assuming we even make it that far" and warning that hot staging could cause damage to the booster.
The last Starship "test" experienced some Raptor engine malfunctioning last April. The spacecraft and booster failed to separate, and instead rotated in mid-air before falling uncontrollably back toward Earth and a deliberate detonation over Boca Chica, Texas for safety reasons.
In the process, the heavy-lift rocket even destroyed a chunk of its own launch pad. That mess earned SpaceX 63 corrective actions from the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) – all of which the space cadets seemingly took on the chin.
NASA, which is counting on Starship and its increased payload for its future missions to the Moon and Mars – including the Artemis III mission scheduled for the end of 2025 – also applauded SpaceX's efforts.
"Congrats to the teams who made progress on today's flight test," commented NASA administrator Bill Nelson.
"Spaceflight is a bold adventure demanding a can-do spirit and daring innovation. Today's test is an opportunity to learn – then fly again," he added.
Yet, there is one organization that seems less than chuffed about last week's endeavors – and that is, once again, the FAA, which chose the word "mishap" over "progress" or "test."
"The FAA will oversee the SpaceX-led mishap investigation to ensure SpaceX complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements," announced the regulatory body on social media. ®