SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded minutes after liftoff from the launch pad in South Texas on Thursday. The spacecraft was unmanned and the most powerful ever launched. Although it failed to reach orbit, it was not a futile failure for the private spaceflight company.
Before launch, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, played down expectations, saying it would take several attempts for the Starship to succeed on this test mission.
But the launch hit several important milestones, with the rocket flying for four minutes, clearing the launch pad well before it began to fall, culminating in a high-altitude blast. The brief flight generated data for engineers to understand how the vehicle performed.
“It may look like that to some, 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 was a learning experience.”
However, the flight was not a complete success. The flight plan called for the Starship spacecraft to reach an altitude of about 150 miles before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii 90 minutes later.
Later, to the SpaceX team, Mr. Musk offered his congratulations on Twitter. “I learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months,” he said.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also congratulated. “Every great achievement throughout history has required some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward,” said Mr. Nelson wrote on Twitter.
The space agency is relying on SpaceX to develop a version of the Starship that will carry two astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface during its Artemis III mission. It remains to be seen how Jupiter’s flight effect could affect the schedule, which hopefully calls for the first lunar landing to occur in late 2025.
When SpaceX started building Starship, it was Mr. Fueled by Musk’s dream, the venture must carry a lot of material to succeed.
But entrepreneurs and futurists are thinking closer to home. A giant, fully reusable vehicle would lower the cost of sending objects into space, leading some to imagine how Starships could carry giant space telescopes to peer into space or squadrons of robots to explore other worlds. Others are designing larger satellites because they don’t have to use the expensive components currently required to fit the size and weight constraints imposed by current rockets.
Bill Larson, who served as a White House space adviser during the Obama administration and later worked on communications efforts at SpaceX, said, “There’s massive potential to move sports and transportation into orbit by flying rockets and reusing them.” “And it can enable a whole new class of tasks.”
Despite the setback, SpaceX remains the dominant company in global space travel. Its rockets have already traveled to space 25 times by 2023, with the most recent launch successfully completed on Wednesday.
Thursday’s countdown at the launch pad near Brownsville, South Texas, went smoothly from early morning until the last half-minute, when SpaceX engineers worked through technical issues and paused for a few minutes. Employees at SpaceX headquarters in California began cheering loudly as the countdown resumed.
At 9:33 a.m. ET, the 33 engines on the superheavy booster ignited in a huge cloud of fire, smoke, and dust, and the starship slowly rose upward. About a minute later, the rocket passed through a period of maximum aerodynamic pressure, one of the critical moments in any rocket launch.
“It’s been really good to get the pads out and it’s been really good for a while,” Mr. Dumbacher said.
A video of the rocket flashes as several engines in the lower part of the spacecraft’s super-heavy booster fail. It shifted too much for the guidance system to compensate, and the vehicle began to fall into the corkscrew lane.
“It doesn’t seem like a nominal situation,” SpaceX engineer John Innsbrucker said during the company’s launch live.
The upper-stage starship vehicle apparently never separated from the booster, and four minutes later, the automatic flight termination system destroyed the rocket, ending the flight in a fireball.
The launch fulfilled SpaceX’s promise of “excitement guaranteed.” It also avoided the disastrous consequences of an explosion on the launch pad, which would have required extensive repairs.
Carl Krieg, 69, and his wife traveled from Colorado to the launch, and then on the beach on South Padre Island watched the plane take off from a safe distance.
“I’m so glad I lived to see it,” he said. “It’s incredibly dramatic, one of those things on the bucket list.”
Carlos Huertas, 42, a stage technician who lives in Los Angeles, was on the beach wearing a SpaceX T-shirt that said “Occupy Mars.”
“I thought it was going well until I found out it exploded,” he said. “It’s a little disappointing, even though we know it has great potential,” he added, adding that he hopes to see another release soon.
Heavy-lift rockets such as Starships are inherently more complex and more difficult to build than smaller rockets, and building an aircraft carrier takes more labor than ordinary boats. Additionally, by aiming to make all parts of the spacecraft reusable and relaunchable hours after landing, SpaceX is attempting an engineering challenge beyond anything accomplished in the previous 60 years of the space age.
It’s no surprise to experts that SpaceX wasn’t completely successful on its first try.
“They might have a couple of questions to see why some engines might not be running,” said Mr. Dumbcher said. “They’ll see it, they’ll figure it out, they’ll come back next time, they’ll fix those problems, they’ll move on to the next node, and eventually they’ll fly all of this. Way in orbit. I’m fully confident in that.”
However, SpaceX has a history of learning from mistakes. The company’s mantra is basically, “Fail fast, but learn fast.”
Traditional aerospace companies tried to anticipate and prevent as many failures as possible. But that approach takes money and time and leads to overdesigned vehicles. SpaceX is like a Silicon Valley software company — it starts with an imperfect product that can be quickly improved.
As it tried to launch the Falcon 9 boosters, some of the first hit hard and exploded. With each attempt, SpaceX engineers tweaked the systems. After its first successful landing, more soon followed. Today, a failed booster landing is a rare surprise.
A few years ago, the company took a similar approach to fine-tuning the landing procedure for the Starship. In a series of tests, prototypes of the starship were raised to an altitude of about six miles before shutting down its engines. It then belly-flops into the atmosphere, slowing its rate of descent and tilting back to vertical, firing its engines again to land. The first few ended explosively before an attempt was finally successful.
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 original rocket, the tiny Falcon 1, failed to reach orbit. Mr. Musk put together the money and parts needed for a fourth launch attempt. Had it failed, SpaceX would have gone out of business. The fourth Falcon 1 launch was a success, and SpaceX has been successful in all of its attempts, even if it sometimes fails at first.
Big NASA projects, like the Space Launch System that NASA used on an unmanned mission to the moon in November, usually don’t offer the same luxury of exploding as you learn.
“Government programs are not allowed to operate that way because all the stakeholders can look at us and say no to you,” said Mr. Dumbcher said.
Back on the beach, the people who had turned up for the launch were eagerly awaiting the day’s conclusion.
“Would it have been awesome if it hadn’t exploded?” said Lauren Posey, 34. “Yes. But it was still awesome.
James Dobbins She contributed reporting from South Padre Island, Texas.