SpaceX giant rocket leaves crater, major damage to Texas base

Flying chunks of concrete, twisted metal plates, craters blasting deep into the ground: The thunderous power of SpaceX’s first test flight of Starship – the largest and most powerful rocket ever built – has inflicted major damage at its Texas launch site.

Repairing the damage caused by Thursday’s uncrewed test flight is expected to take months, potentially delaying further launch attempts and slowing development of a rocket that NASA plans to use on its upcoming missions to the Moon.

SpaceX boss Elon Musk said ahead of the test that just getting the spacecraft off the ground without destroying its launch pad would be “a victory.”

Luckily for Musk, the 120m-high rocket took off successfully, climbing for about four minutes until it dropped and exploded, well above the Gulf of Mexico.

But SpaceX engineers may have underestimated the damage Starship’s 33 first-stage rocket engines would do.

A few days later, the scene around the launch pad is bleak, saw an AFP photographer.

During liftoff, SpaceX video showed a hail of debris being hurled into the Gulf of Mexico, more than 420 meters away. According to local press reports, a cloud of dust flew over a town several kilometers away.

Photos of the launch site show the giant launch tower still standing while the rocket stand, which props up the spacecraft before liftoff, is damaged but still intact.

Beneath it, however, lies a huge crater, images posted on social media showed.

“The force of the engines as they accelerated may have shattered the concrete, rather than simply eroding it,” Musk, another company in his portfolio, admitted on Twitter on Saturday.

– A delay of months –

Olivier de Weck, a professor of astronautics and engineering at MIT, told AFP that “the beam of debris and disturbance was probably larger than anyone expected.”

“The main damage to the launch pad is below where the flames hit the ground,” he told AFP, adding that repairing the crater “will take several months.”

De Weck said the Starship launch site, unlike others used for such large rockets, did not have a “water deluge system”.

These are used to flood the pad with water, cooling it down and absorbing shock and sound waves.

The Texas site also lacks what’s known as a flame pit, tunnels that channel hot exhaust gases away from the pad.

But such features come at a steep price, particularly when they have to stand up to the shattering power of Starship.

After Thursday’s test, Musk said SpaceX has begun building “a huge water-cooled steel plate to insert under the launch pad.”

But it “wasn’t ready in time” and the engineers “wrongly” calculated that the pad could still withstand the test.

Known for daring goal-setting, Musk estimates that a next launch attempt could be made as soon as “a month or two”.

– Cast Steel –

Scientist Philip Metzger, who previously worked for NASA on launch pad physics, said he believed the sheet steel plane could have been “a good solution.”

“The problem,” he added, “is that this is such a big rocket and it takes so long to get off the platform,” that the heat from the rocket’s 33 engines “could melt steel.”

That could be solved by pumping water through channels in the steel, “provided they have a high enough flow rate,” said Metzger, now a professor at the University of Central Florida.

He said the approach won’t solve the shockwave problem entirely, but he believes it’s possible that Starship was designed to be robust enough to survive.

Designing a launch pad, Metzger told AFP, can be as complicated as developing a rocket.

The maiden launch in November of NASA’s new mega-rocket, the SLS, also caused damage to its launch pad in Florida, most notably by knocking out the launch tower elevators.

Before its next test flight, SpaceX will need to determine the exact issues underlying Thursday’s test.

In video broadcast by the company, several of Starship’s 33 engines appeared to be malfunctioning.

Also, the rocket’s two stages didn’t separate as expected, forcing SpaceX to activate a self-destruct mechanism.

The private aerospace company will also have to convince the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to authorize a new flight, de Weck noted.

The US agency, which is conducting an investigation into the explosion, confirmed that no injuries emerged from Thursday’s test. He said no new tests would be approved if there was a threat to public safety.

De Weck echoed Musk’s assessment of the trial, calling it “more of a success than a failure”.

“The reason they’re achieving these amazing capabilities,” continued the MIT professor, “is because they’re willing to take risks and break things.

“But they learn from it and improve very, very quickly.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *