Sunday, June 23, 2024
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SpaceX's Starship explosion is no big deal. here's why

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TeaTo hear the people in charge say this, you’d think that SpaceX’s Starship rocket—the biggest, grandest, most powerful rocket ever built—didn’t blast off over the Gulf of Mexico this morning, just four minutes into its maiden flight and barely off the ground 39 km (24 mi) above, which was considered an around-the-world orbital voyage.

For one thing the company didn’t call the incident an explosion. Instead Starship Experienced “Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly” SpaceX Tweeted,

For another thing, apparent failure was met with less hung heads than high fives. “Congratulations to @SpaceX on the first integrated flight test of Starship!” Tweeted NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of planned risk, because with great risk comes great reward. SpaceX is looking forward to what it learns, to its next flight test, and beyond.

SpaceX founder and boss Elon Musk was no less optimistic. “Congratulations to the @SpaceX team on the exciting test launch of Starship!” He Tweeted, “Lots learned for the next test launch in a few months.”

Again, just for the record, the 40-story rocket—whose upper stage is slated to serve as the lunar landing vehicle on NASA’s crewed Artemis 3 mission in late 2020—Blasted in attack instead of going into space. There is no beautifying that sad fact. But there’s also no arguing with another fact: Rockets blowing up or crashing is what rockets do—many, many times, over and over, throughout the history of unmanned space flight. And this essential part of the testing process is essential to success in space.

On February 20, 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, having previously launched aboard an Atlas rocket. about 50% exploded Its uncrewed test flights. On March 23, 1965, Gus Grissom and John Young strapped themselves into their Gemini 3 spacecraft, becoming the first astronauts to fly above. Titan II Intercontinental Ballistic missile that had More than a dozen failed test launches It is intended to make it fit for carrying humans. On December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 crew, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders, became the first astronauts to fly a Saturn 5 moon rocket after a single flight. a raw saturn 5 It suffered engine failures and vibrations that nearly shook itself to pieces. But Borman, Lowell and Anders flew away anyway, becoming the first humans to orbit the Moon and return to Earth safe and sound.

Space travel, as has been said time and time again, is hard. And SpaceX knows as well as anyone that its R&D model of build fast, fly fast, fail fast and fly again has made it one of the world’s leading launch providers today; Its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket has successfully taken off 217 times since 2010, including 61 launches in 2022 alone.

saw a falcon three launch failures It is in the present before the star cast is formed, and the starship has already failed several times. From 2020 to 2021, five upper-stage Starship rockets were launched on short test flights – up to a maximum altitude of 10 km (6.2 mi) – of which four ended in explosions or crashed before the fifth was successful. , and even one that included a small fire at the base of the rocket after landing.

“That’s why we do tests, you know,” says Lisa Watson-Morgan, NASA’s program manager for the Artemis lunar landing system. “You learn more from a test that doesn’t go well than from one that goes well, and then you regroup and go at it again.

And Starships require more of this repeated testing than most machines. The rocket is a highly complex beast, with no fewer than 33 engines in its first stage—yet a countless number of those that didn’t burn up during this morning’s launch. Its second stage is powered by nine engines. As Pablo de León, chair of the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota, says, it is a “nightmare for plumbers”, reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s 30-engine N1 moon rocket, which was intended to take off to the moon. cosmonauts for but is best remembered for flying brilliantly in 1969 test flightCausing the biggest explosion in space history.

Starship didn’t do nearly as bad today. The Soviet N1 exploded seconds after liftoff, falling back to the ground and destroying the launch pad. SpaceX meanwhile never promised that Starship would be successful, but it kept cleaning the launch tower and pad intact as one of the mission’s main goals. “Starship has cleared the pad and beach! Vehicle is on nominal flight path,” the company Tweeted In the first moments of flight, officially marks the achievement of the modest goal set for itself.

“I think [the explosion] was something that SpaceX anticipated as a realistic possibility,” says John Logsdon, professor emeritus and founder of the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. “They did a great job of downplaying expectations before launch. And I think it’s because they realized that many things can go wrong in testing such a complex system. And did something.

There may still be more. The company continues to build Starship at a rapid pace—reminiscent of NASA’s Apollo era, when 13 Saturn 5s were flown from 1967 to 1973, nine of which took crews to the Moon in a span of just four years Were. “I think they have a factory full of many duplicates of these systems,” Logsdon says. “It’s not that they’ve lost something that’s irreplaceable.”

Musk may or may not make good on his tweeted promise to launch a Starship again in “a few months,” but the company has its future at stake — and NASA’s Artemis Moon program at stake. We’ve put it on – on the promise that the giant rocket will actually fly, and fly well. Rockets explode and rockets fly. Today Starship was less fortunate than those results. If history is any guide, it will eventually find another.

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write to Jeffrey Kluger at [email protected].