The full version of SpaceX’s futuristic Starship launch vehicle took to the skies last week in the first-ever attempt to send it into space, rolling off the launch pad in South Texas and climbing 24 miles above the Earth’s surface before undergoing a “rapid unscheduled disassembly”. (i.e. exploded into a large ball of fire and debris).
While SpaceX is still conducting an investigation into what exactly went wrong, what we know so far is that Starship hasn’t been able to part with its first-stage rocket, the gigantic and all-new Super Heavy. Both structures, stuck together, flipped several times in the air before exploding. SpaceX later released a statement saying they had a self-destruct system in place should a problem like this occur.
Despite the explosive ending, SpaceX and the aerospace community at large hailed the launch as a success, providing valuable data on Super Heavy, along with a growing list of what went wrong that includes several Super Heavy engine malfunctions, phases not separating and damage to the surrounding launch site.
“Congratulations @SpazioX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted after he is seen looking noticeably disgruntled with the launch. “I’ve learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months.”
And SpaceX is no stranger to explosive results. The company’s tests of Starship prototypes have often been promoted as unpredictable spectacles. Many of those ships crashed and burned. And before that, SpaceX’s Falcon series of rockets underwent a series of flights that often ended badly as the company perfected its ability to land them safely.
But last week’s show looks different. The damage caused by the launch was massive. CNBC reported Monday that the Federal Aviation Administration has even grounded the Starship program as it investigates the impact it may have had on surrounding communities and ecosystems. (Neither the FAA nor SpaceX responded to requests for comment.)
Indeed, it marks a potential turning point that could cause the company to rethink its decades-old cheeky approach. The spaceship is new, but SpaceX isn’t, and if it’s looking to get more people into space and perform missions at a significantly increased rate, it might not be able to afford to be so lax in playing damage control.
Soon after the mission, eagle-eyed spectators and experts noted the significant amount of damage done to the launch pad, with huge chunks of concrete missing to form a large crater under the launch site.
The damage appeared to have been caused by the lack of a flame diverter below the launch pad which would have redirected the intense engine fire and heat away from the rocket. Users dug up a file Musk’s October 2020 tweet in which he posted that SpaceX would not build a flame deflector on the launchpad, but acknowledged that “it could turn out to be a mistake”.
“I’ve seen pictures of a lot of launch pad damage and suspect it’s more likely the result of no flame diverter,” John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University and founder of the school’s Space Policy Institute, said. told the Daily Beast. He added that there was still a fair amount of “speculation” involved in any initial assessment.
The throwing also caused chunks of concrete to fall and bangs buildings and infrastructure nearbyas well as a car parked miles away. The rocket kicked up so much debris that clouds of dust blanketed the nearby city of Port Isabel, covering homes and cars in thick layers of dirt. The sand-and-ash-like matter spread miles beyond the designated 700-acre debris field that was established prior to launch. It is not yet clear whether the matter could pose a health hazard. According to CNBC, residents of Port Isabel, a city near the Starship spaceport, some residents have reported breaking windows in their homes and businesses.
Debris and particulate matter also flew into the ocean and a nearby wildlife sanctuary, raising tensions with SpaceX and environmental activists who have fought the launch site due to its potential damage to local ecosystems (including the beachside habitat of the Kemp’s Ridley endangered sea turtle). A spokesman for the US Fish and Wildlife Service told The Daily Beast that the agency is currently assessing any damage to the area and is still working on the investigation. Less than favorable results could result in even more scrutiny over the aerospace company and further delays in future Starship test flights.
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Chris Combs, an aerodynamics and mechanical engineering researcher at the University of Texas, San Antonio, pointed out that SpaceX already had a lot of trouble with the FAA when it took the agency years to complete its environmental review of the site. launch of Starship and Super Heavy. and finally give her stamp of approval. The wait has forced SpaceX to put a long pause on multiple projects.
“I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens now, especially considering some of the aftermath like concrete going into the ocean and the closure of the wildlife refuge,” Combs told The Daily Beast. “How much more will the government let Boca do?”
SpaceX’s startup-oriented ethos is bold and likely helped the company perfect the landing system for its flagship Falcon 9 rocket. But Starship is a much bigger system. Breaking things up means a much bigger cleanup.
Problems with the launch pad may have damaged several of Super Heavy’s engines. Logsdon noted that the engines are an entirely different system from stage separation and are about “180 feet or 200 feet away from the burning engines at the tail end of the rocket,” so he is skeptical that the two problems are related to each other. But he admits the possibility that the damage to the launch pad could have led to a sort of domino effect that ultimately caused the stage separation to malfunction.
Elon Musk’s spaceship launch blows up Texas City with dust and debris
“One thing that’s really possible is that because they have so many dead engines, the vehicle was rolling and not in total control,” Combs explained. “It’s possible that the separation orientation wasn’t quite what it should have been when they tried to start it.”
What Combs means is that the vehicle essentially had to be at a specific angle for the separation to occur. Since it wasn’t due to engine failures, the rocket’s weight may have shifted and caused it to crash. And all of this may have stemmed from SpaceX’s decision not to include a flame deflector.
Moss recognized after attempted orbital flight that SpaceX had begun preliminary construction of a “water-cooled steel plate” to be placed under the launch pad. “It wasn’t ready in time,” but the company went ahead with the April 20 launch anyway.
This is a pretty clear illustration of the culture that got SpaceX where it is, and the culture that may now be holding it back. Much of SpaceX’s status as the world’s leading innovator in space is the result of trial and failure amountand learning as much as he could along the way. That’s why the company almost seems to wear its failures as badges of pride. Every blast of rockets or crashing boosters during landing attempts is a sign that they are getting closer to their ultimate goals.
SpaceX’s spacecraft explodes in a fireball immediately after launch
However, things are different now. SpaceX is no longer the startup it was when it first attempted to land its Falcon 9 boosters. It has grown to become the biggest player in the aerospace industry, dominating and securing lucrative government and private contracts with ease. The ethic of moving things fast and breaking things now may be doing them more harm than good. The installation of the flame diverter was already expected to delay further flight tests of the Starship for up to two months. And the FAA could keep the spacecraft grounded for much longer as it continues to investigate what happened.
Nearby Boca Chica and the city of Brownsville are already feeling the full effects of having the world’s most successful rocket company right on their doorstep. This has drawn the ire of many residents who say the frequent tests and explosions have led to immediate environmental effects such as polluting the oceans and displacing native bird species. (Though not everyone is upset: Cities are already seeing an influx of revenue from tourists and SpaceX workers.)
“When you look around you see that there is dust, dirt and sand on people’s homes. There is concrete in the ocean. I don’t know in what world this is a trivial impact,” Combs said. “Things like that are going to be reviewed pretty severely.”
For now, SpaceX and Musk are celebrating the launch as a victory, at least publicly. Over time, we will learn the full extent of what went into the failure and the full impact of the launch on the surrounding wildlife and communities.
But there’s no denying that the approach that got SpaceX to where it is today won’t necessarily be the same approach that gets them to the moon and Mars. The decision to forego a flame deflector may not only have ended up costing the company its booster and rocket booster, but also caused a variety of physical and reputational damage, and could end up sowing new frustrations in the surrounding community. It shows that you can’t just move fast and break things when you’re older, because the things you break get bigger too.
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