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Starship Launch Picture

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is developing a super heavy-lift launch vehicle called Starship. Starship is the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built. It also uses reusable rocket parts like other SpaceX rockets.

SpaceX has been developing Starship since 2012 and started manufacturing prototypes in 2019 at SpaceX’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX tested seven of Starship’s upper-stage prototypes between August 2020 and May 2021. The last of the seven, a full-size Starship SN15, successfully landed after reaching an altitude of 10 kilometres.

Only the lower parts of SpaceX rockets are currently reusable, but Starship’s upper part is too reusable.

Thursday, on 20th April 2023, SpaceX tested a full-scale orbital test flight of the Starship rocket, but it, unfortunately, exploded in the middle of the flight.

Starship's engine burst

Video of the rocket captured flashes as several of the 33 engines failed on the lower portion of the spacecraft because of the frozen valve, the Super Heavy booster. The guidance system could not manage it with several failed engines, and the vehicle started tumbling.

The upper-stage Starship vehicle did not separate from the booster, and four minutes after liftoff, the automated flight termination system destroyed the rocket, ending the flight in a fireball.

This shows the launch vehicle had several flaws, and the triggering of them one by one caused the test to fail.

In an update, SpaceX said the rocket got as high as about 24 miles over the Gulf of Mexico.

SpaceX called it a “rapid, unscheduled disassembly.” It is the professional way of saying, “The rocket just blew up.” There was no crew on the ship.

SpaceX and Elon have seen many failures since the company started, and every time it has proved to teach something valuable. The mistakes are the reason behind the progress of SpaceX.

Elon has described the Starship rocket explosion as a “successful failure”.

Starship explosion

Elon Musk dreams of humans becoming interplanetary species. Starship can make it possible as it can take up to 100 passengers to space. Starship can make space tourism affordable as its parts do not burn up or are discarded in the ocean after launch. They are returned to land and can be used in another rocket which is not the case with other launch vehicles.

Despite the costly failure, scientists from all parts of the world are offering congratulations to SpaceX for the test. “Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk because with great risk comes great reward,” Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, wrote on Twitter.

Starship launch site

Company’s CEO Elon Musk congratulated the SpaceX team on Twitter and announced the next launch. “Learned a lot for the next test launch in a few months,” he said.

“It may look that way to some people, but it’s not a failure,” said Daniel Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and a former high-level NASA official. “It’s a learning experience.”

The flight plan called for the Starship spacecraft to reach a higher altitude of about 150 miles (241 km) before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii about 90 minutes later.

Why are all the people saying this? Let’s find out.

Before the launch, Elon Musk said it might take several tries for Starship to successfully fly to the Lower Earth Orbit and return to land.

Starship was in the air for four minutes. The short flight gave a lot of data for engineers to understand how the rocket performed and what to improve.

Super heavy rockets like Starship are hard to fly and keep it flying, even for a minute, so lifting a 5000-metric tonnes rocket for 4 minutes is a great success, and it should be praised.

The engineers at SpaceX could spend months thinking and planning about the main launch, but they cannot learn as much as launching a test rocket. It is always a better option to launch a test rocket to get all the information about the atmospheric pressure, resistance, friction, power required, engine status, aerodynamic structures, fuel efficiency, automated systems, and other components and physical conditions - before the actual launch of the main rocket.

It always needs to identify the mistake to correct it, that’s what SpaceX has been doing for all these years, and that’s why they are happy even if their launch failed. According to the reports, 8 of the 33 Raptor engines failed after the takeoff.

The engineers at SpaceX can now find the problem and fix it for the launch of the main Starship rocket.

The best thing about SpaceX is that it can “afford” to fail because it is built on failures. Let’s take the example of NASA. NASA spends billions of dollars and years building nearly flawless rockets and satellites. NASA usually do not build test rockets and tries to be successful on the first try with the main rocket. NASA cannot afford failure as they are the most advanced space agency and are known for achieving its goals on the first try; even a minor NASA failure can damage the agency’s reputation significantly.

SpaceX’s method is expensive, but it is much faster. SpaceX can launch dozens of heavy rockets in space, but other agencies like NASA struggle to launch even two or three a year.

Engineers should not worry about failures and should focus on larger goals. This is what the SpaceX staff is doing as they are working on the new designs and improvements of the Raptor engines.

Popular Science author Eric Berger describes the launch:

“They are like the first fish to walk out of the sea 375 million years ago on Earth, beginning the extraordinary transformation of life on Earth. With these Falcon 9 landings—and now Starship—we are seeing the transformation of life off Earth.”

So, as long as SpaceX has a continuous inflow of money, they do not need to worry about the future. Indeed, they are like the first fish to walk out of the sea as they pioneered reusable rockets that will save millions of dollars in money.

Written by Mayank Vikash

Published on Wednesday, 26th April 2023 at 18:12 IST

Last updated Wednesday, Apr 26, 2023, at 18:15 IST