Wednesday, May 22, 2024

SpaceX Must Fix 63 Issues Before Its Starship Can Fly Again

Their statement also said the company had reinforced the launch pad’s foundation. Similarly, Musk tweeted this morning: “Thousands of upgrades to Starship & launchpad/Mechazilla,” referring to the launch tower.

The April launch was not the first time SpaceX had tested—and crashed—a version of Starship, although previous launches had been of earlier prototypes, including just the upper-stage rocket. In April, engineers had sought to test the fully stacked rocket and to send it on its first nearly orbital flight. After stage separation, the uncrewed upper stage was supposed to fly almost all the way around the Earth, and then splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii 90 minutes later.

On launch day, Starship successfully got off the pad, but trouble became apparent a few minutes later. During ascent, propellant leaked at the end of the Super Heavy booster and caused fires, which severed the connection with the primary flight computer, according to the SpaceX statement. That’s why the upper stage and the booster failed to separate, the company concluded. Engineers then lost control of the vehicle, the connected stack began to rotate and tumble, and it eventually exploded.

Another problem was the cratering of the launch pad, caused by what Musk described on Twitter Spaces as a “rock tornado” generated by the launch. The launchpad notably lacked a flame deflector—or water deluge system—which most pads are built with. This is intended to diffuse the sound, flames, and energy produced by a launch. In SpaceX’s statement today, the company says it has made upgrades “to prevent a recurrence of the pad foundation failure,” and that includes “the addition of a flame deflector, which SpaceX has successfully tested multiple times.”

(SpaceX has not responded to WIRED’s request for comment.)

There’s a lot on the line for Starship. At 390 feet tall, it is bigger than either SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or even NASA’s Space Launch System. With 33 Raptor engines and millions of pounds of thrust, it could become the most powerful rocket in the world. Musk envisions using Starship for Mars voyages, and NASA plans to use it for the Artemis moon missions, starting with the historic Artemis 3 flight planned for 2025, which will take astronauts back to lunar soil for the first time since 1972. NASA also awarded SpaceX a contract for the Artemis 4 landing scheduled for 2028. Those plans will face setbacks if SpaceX can’t quickly get its launch site and its massive new rocket working. A couple weeks after the Starship explosion, NASA awarded Blue Origin—SpaceX’s rival—a moon lander contract for the Artemis 5 mission slated for 2029, perhaps as a hedge in case SpaceX’s troubles with Starship continue.

Inaugural rocket launches almost always fail, especially attempted orbital flights, and SpaceX’s Starship’s short-lived flight was not unexpected. (NASA’s successful lunar flight by the Space Launch System and Orion last year was an exception.) Musk himself tweeted that he thought there might be a 50 percent chance of success and said on Twitter Spaces that he hoped the rocket wouldn’t “fireball” and melt the launchpad. The FAA oversees other companies’ launch site investigations too—including Blue Origin’s following its New Shepard rocket failure in September 2022.

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