Starship goes BOOM!

The news today was pretty full of SpaceX getting Starship off the ground, finally, after years of hard work. The news seems to be somewhat split, however – while most seem to be pretty up about the whole thing, that the rocket got as far as it did, there’s also a few who are far more critical at the attempt. The general approach is that it was a “successful failure” (not the first time that phrase has been used in spaceflight), that the goal was effectively achieved, even if the rocket exploded over the Gulf of Mexico.

Sorry, intentionally exploded. Important detail, there. Though based on the flight dynamics, the rocket was doomed, so this was more just talking the rocket out of its misery.

But – a “failure”? I have difficulty even with that word. What would I use? How about “successful test”? They got off the ground, got to almost 40 kilometers up, running over 2,150 km/h. Prior to this, the only time any part of Starship had flown was SN15, which only got as high as commercial jet before it came back down. A fair test of its ability to fly and land, yes, but not the extreme speeds of a proper orbital (or even lunar) launch. They were never going to know exactly how well the rocket would fare until they really lit a fire under it and put it through its paces.

And if you think I’m being forgiving, you need to better understand the history of spaceflight as a whole. Since that’s a lengthy topic, let’s take a little trip through SpaceX’s history.

SpaceX was founded in 2002, barely 21 years ago. The inspiration for SpaceX came from a desire of Musk’s to live on Mars. After getting brushed off by the Russians – who, at the time, had the most cost-effective launch system – he figured out that he could grossly undercut existing launch platforms by rethinking the entire process. To be clear: Musk did not leap to something that had two times the thrust of a Saturn V. Wisely, he started small: Falcon 1.

Falcon 1 was a stick compared to many other rockets, but it had a simple goal: develop the technology, develop the processes, work out the kinks with something small and rapidly iterative. The first launch on 24 March 2006 failed 33 seconds into the flight. The second flight did better, but the engine shutdown prematurely 7.5 minutes into the flight, and the payload failed to make orbit. On the third flight, the two stages actually collided with each other. Flight 4 worked. It was a dummy payload, but the point was made – the design worked, the rocket worked, and it could fly. Flight 5 was the last of Falcon 1, the only one of the series to put a commercial payload in orbit. Falcon 1 was cancelled as a lift vehicle afterwards for business reasons in 2009.

Falcon 9 would be announced as a heavier lift vehicle before Falcon 1 even flew. It came directly off the back of Falcon 1’s research and development, helping SpaceX turn the Falcon 9 into a success almost right from the start – the first launch went as expected.

Almost as expected. Because with Falcon 9, SpaceX went one step further: land the first stage. Up until this point, rockets were expendible, used up like a fast-burning candle. But as SpaceX had noted very early on, that’s a huge waste – if you can recover even part of the rocket, you can reuse it, lowering the overall cost of launches. And thus began nearly four years of development to try bring the first stage back in one piece. Which, after soft-landings in the ocean, progressed to landing on a drone ship out at sea. Everyone held their breaths about it working the first time, but there wasn’t a ringing denouncement of SpaceX when the first stage exploded upon impact (hey, at least they got to the ship), simply because it had never been attempted before.

So, let’s think this process out, shall we? You have a two-stage rocket. To get something into Earth orbit, you need to be moving about 27,000 km/h. (It’s often said that it’s not how high you go, it’s how fast.) The first stage doesn’t get to 27,000 km/h, but somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 km/h is nothing to sneeze at. You now have an object moving at well over 7 times the speed of sound … and you have to slow it down, turn it around, send it back where it came from, drop it down from it’s 100+ km altitude, and place it on the surface within 10 metres of centre.

There’s a reason SpaceX has a video of their first stage landing failures. It’s a celebration of learning – yeah, they didn’t work. But they knew why. And I’ll tell you, the moment they landed a first stage? I cheered, loudly. And I guarantee you the roar from SpaceX could be heard miles away.

So Starship not going to plan was, quite honestly, predictable. And that’s not a condemnation of SpaceX or its engineering practices. They were trying something never done before. Yes, they’ve launched rockets. But no-one had successfully launched one that big. Ten metres taller, almost 120 tonnes heavier, with 33 engines (Saturn V had only 5, although still the largest ones ever made). To say it’s huge is an understatement. And getting it off the ground was an achievement (witness the crater it left behind).

“But!” you say, “NASA launched SLS perfectly the first time!”

Sigh. Yes, NASA launched a repurposed rocket just fine. Remember, the SLS is basically a rehash, scaled up, of components that launched the space shuttles, there’s nothing “new” about the SLS other than its configuration. So in terms of “never been done before”, that’s not ticking any boxes. (That’s not a criticism, that’s just what you do when you’re a government agency when your budgets keep getting cut: you make sure it’s good value, you don’t do anything radical.)

And let’s rememeber that NASA is not allowed to make mistakes. That’s not by the piece of paper that created them, or any of their (formal) policies ever since. That’s the reality of being a publicly-funded organization. One mistake and everyone suddenly wants to pull the funding of one of the most valuable scientific organizations in the world (NASA doesn’t just fly rockets, folks). In The Martian, Teddy Sanders, Director of NASA, quips:

Congress won’t reimburse us for a paper clip… If I put a dead astronaut on the front page of the Washington post.

He’s not wrong. Little mistakes have huge impact with government agencies, and NASA probably gets more than its fair share of public humiliation when things don’t go as planned.

No-one cares about the massive achievements of Apollo, they only care about how much it costs (curiously, they don’t care about the cost of the military). NASA spent nearly USD$24 billion to design and build and launch just one SLS. Starship? Maybe USD$3 billion, including all the development.

“Wait!” you say, “Saturn V launched 13 times without a single failure!”

The Saturn V is still a highly impressive vehicle, a three stage monster that eclipsed everything and remained the biggest and heaviest launch vehicle for years. But it’s incorrect to say everything went off without a hitch. Apollo 6 – an unmanned, and therefore oft-forgotten mission – had a failure of a second stage engine, and its third stage engine refused to relight for a translunar injection. While it did get to orbit, the rocket vehicle, overall, failed.

And Saturn V, in the configuration we all know and reminisce over, was the final version of the Saturn rocket. It began as a Saturn I, which became the Saturn IB, both much smaller than their future big brother, neither of which used the massive F-5 engines that got people to the moon.

Also, lest we forget Apollo 1. Though not even a launch (it was planned), it was a serious reset for NASA and it procedures, many of which ensured the success of the Apollo program.

“Aha!” you say, “the Russians have flown Soyuz over 1,900 times!”

The Soviets and the Russians have flown 7 different variants of the Soyuz rocket 1,849 times (119 failures) since their first flight in 1957. The Soyuz-U (retired in 2017) flew 765 successful missions. In fact, if you really want to praise the Soviet/Russian spaceflight industry, they hold four of the top five slots of most (successful) rocket flights.

But these are “workhorse” rockets – all they do is put things in orbit. You want to go further? Like, say, the moon? You need a bigger rocket. Anything heavy, like a space station module? You need a bigger rocket. And Soviet/Russian rockets have a decidedly poorer track record when you go beyond orbit. Proton-M and Proton-K, both used for these kinds of things, failed 13 times out of 31 flights. And the N-1, the Soviet’s response to the Saturn V, failed all four times it was attempted.

Simply put: space is hard. Even getting there is a challenge.

All of this to say: Yeah, Starship didn’t get to orbit on its first attempt. Aside from the fact that it was never meant to do that on the first attempt, that they got as far as they did was an achievement. And it’s going to take a lot of work to make the next flight go better. My prediction? Another boom.

I’m betting the third time’s the charm.

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