Starship failure: a great success for SpaceX

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SpaceX's Starship is by far the largest, heaviest and most powerful rocket in history. After a long wait, several delays and a canceled attempt, it lifted off from Star Base in Boca Chica, Texas, on Thursday, April 20. On its maiden flight it managed to exceed many people's expectations, revealing a host of problems along the way. Despite the final failure and detonation of the vehicle the mission can be considered a success.

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Photograph of the Starship set taking off for the first time in history. Breaking the record for the heaviest and highest thrust rocket in history. Credits: SpaceX

What is SpaceX's Starship?

The Starship rocket is a system composed of the Super Heavy booster and the Starship spacecraft of the same name. It is intended to achieve 100 % recovery, in order to allow a higher launch rate and exponentially decrease the cost of carrying a payload to orbit.. It harnesses methane and oxygen to power thirty-three Raptor engines, which are expected to be extracted from Mars and the Moon.

It's SpaceX's latest and greatest rocket. An American company led by Elon Musk and Gwynne Shotwell. It is strongly supported by NASA thanks to the service of launching satellites, probes and crews into space, as well as a contract for the construction of the lunar module for the Artemis III mission.

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Fascinating image of the Starship complex in flight. Credits: SpaceX

The 120-meter-tall rocket is assembled, tested and launched from Star Base, a space center built in Texas near the Mexican border and on the edge of the Caribbean. There are cancelled plans to launch from oil plants in the middle of the ocean. Currently, a special platform is being prepared at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Recap

After a great deal of delays, problems, repairs and modifications, the longed-for day finally arrived. After a long wait the countdown reached zero and the computers gave the order to start the engines. Thirty-three of them were started simultaneously. The plume or ejected gases hit the ground directly below the launch pad, and combined with the water from the deluge system, used to suppress sound, created a huge cloud from which it finally emerged seconds later.

In that short time three of the engines were shut down, however, it still had enough to counteract the weight of the rocket. Thus taking flight with a majestic plume tinged with shades of oranges and pinks, along with a white coating of condensed water on the surface of the Super Heavy and the black thermal tiles of the ship.. Thus, until the launching tower was cleared and one of the most critical moments was overcome.

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Photograph taken from the Starship launch tower a few seconds after liftoff. Credits: SpaceX

As Starship ascended, several problems were encountered. From an explosion at the base of the Super Heavy, to a liquid oxygen leak, to the shutdown and ignition of several engines. This did not prevent him from reaching MaxQ or the point of highest aerodynamic stress, another key objective of the test.

It was not until the failed shutdown of the first stage and the attempted separation that the test showed its biggest problems. The engines did not stop running and still offered thrust. It also failed to split the assembly in two so that the spacecraft could reach orbit. Finally, it began to spin out of control and the flight termination system was activated, giving us the incredible image of the explosion.

The rainbow at the end of the storm

Despite the launch failure, it was successful for SpaceX.. It is well known that a large part of the desired mission and objective was not achieved, but this does not mean that the time and effort put into it was wasted. From the company's perspective, and the methodology that has led them to be one of the greatest pitchers in the world, something more valuable than perfection was achieved. And that is to be able to know the mistakes in order to learn, correct them, improve and succeed.

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Photograph taken from one of the onboard cameras showing the entire assembly. The black area is the thermal shield and lost only a few thermal tiles, essential to survive atmospheric re-entry.

Never before in history has a rocket of this size ever taken off.Nor has one using methane ever reached orbit or with such a large number of engines. Starship is designed to test new technologies, techniques and challenges like no one else has ever done. For this, SpaceX prepared the array with a large number of sensors, instruments, cameras and the like to collect as much data as possible.

Beyond the comments from the general public about the overall performance of the flight, in the official broadcast you could hear the excitement of the people who worked on this project and the happiness for what was achieved. The objectives accomplished, such as takeoff, ignition of 30 engines at full power, overcoming the sound barrier and reaching MaxQ, are already achievements of great importance.. And despite the failed launch, they are already preparing the relevant changes for a next test.

Stage zero

Beyond the rocket, it is important to comment on the state of the ground facilities, which are vital for the upcoming launches.. While several rockets are being developed to launch to success, at Star Base there is only one launch pad and a single facility with everything needed.

N1 1M1 mockup on the launch pad at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in late 1967
The N1 rocket was the Soviet counterpart of the Saturn V. It was intended to carry cosmonauts to the lunar surface. The program never achieved a successful flight and was canceled.

It is impossible not to make comparisons with the N1, the Soviet moon rocket that failed. The second attempt of this one went down in history as one of the most catastrophic failures, where seconds later it fell and exploded on the launch pad, almost completely destroying the facility.. This led, in addition to cost overruns, to a delay of up to two years until the next attempt.. Fortunately, we did not see a similar scenario.

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Comparison between the OLM (orbital launch platform) before and after liftoff. It is evident the affectation to the foundations produced by the impact of the gases on the ground.

The next Starship and Super Heavy prototypes will have improvements implemented, based on the errors and problems detected in this first flight. As well as a rethink on the launch pad, which was almost unearthed by the gases expelled from the engines, which in turn threw an exaggerated amount of fragments from the ground at high speed in all directions. Affecting the integrity of nearby facilities, such as the fuel tank farm.

A new opportunity

The infrastructure damage is much greater than expected. A complete report on the results of the flight and a correct characterization of the failures is still needed. In addition to the enormous possibility of facing problems with the FAA due to environmental impacts. Everything points to this being the first and only flight this year. It is important to reiterate, this has been the history of the progress of science, trial and error. The only failure is not learning from mistakes.

Francisco Andrés Forero Daza