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SpaceX Is In Trouble… Again
This is why Musk keeps screwing up Starship.
Over the past two decades, SpaceX has continuously smashed past expectations and achieved feats that have embarrassed the likes of NASA and ESA. Their rockets are so damn good that they have kickstarted a new-age space race, with every other billionaire seeming to follow suit and funding their own space venture. But, Musk’s latest offering, the Starship, should bury any potential competition with the launch payloads they can only dream of, and launch costs cheaper than eBay postage and packing. However, this revolutionary rocket seems to be having a hard time getting off the ground and has repeatedly landed Musk in hot water. In fact, Starship’s new launch pad may have just landed SpaceX in serious trouble yet again! So, what’s going on with Musk’s pride and joy?
Let’s start at the beginning. Earlier this year, SpaceX conducted their first-ever full orbital launch of Starship, and while the rocket did get off the ground, there were some serious issues with this launch attempt.
I have covered these issues in a previous article (which you can read here), but here is a quick recap. Unlike other large rockets, SpaceX opted to use a raised launch pad rather than flame trenches, which dissipate heat and launch force far more effectively. This is likely because such a pad is quicker and cheaper to build, especially at their Texas launch site. But it turns out the launch pad wasn’t fully built and was missing the water-cooled steel plate that would take the direct force of the rocket engines. Musk could have waited for this part before launching, but he wanted to launch on April 20th (because he is cool, I guess?), so they did some static fire tests and concluded that the pad should survive the launch.
Needless to say, on launch day, SpaceX engineers had egg on their collective faces as the launch pad was disintegrated by Starship. In fact, all that was left of the launch pad was a giant crater and some loose bits of concrete. Pulverised soil and concrete were spread for miles and coated the federally protected nature reserve surrounding the launch site (more on that in a second). It seems the harsh vibrations of the launchpad’s destruction may have had some adverse effects on the rocket too, as some of the booster’s engines appeared not to work, and the booster separation mechanism jammed. We have yet to know if these were directly caused by the less-than-ideal launching conditions, but it is certainly possible. However, once SpaceX knew the separation hadn’t worked, they sent a self-destruct signal to the Starship, as this would safely detonate it at altitude rather than let it explode upon landing, which isn’t very safe at all. However, it took Starship much longer to detonate than expected, and some were worried it wouldn’t at all.
Needless to say, there has been some serious kickback after this failed launch. The FAA has revoked Starship’s launch licence, as it sees the environmental and health risks posed by Starship as too severe and wants SpaceX to take mitigating action before the next launch. What’s more, several charities who are responsible for the upkeep of the land around the launch site, which is a nature reserve home to several endangered species, have sued the FAA over the damage they let SpaceX do to their land (and could continue to do if nothing changes). If the FAA loses this case, it could spell the end for Starship, as Musk needs to launch hundreds of missions per year to make the rocket viable, and a precedent like this would make that impossible. So SpaceX has joined the FAA as a co-defendant (read more about that in my article here).
So, while this orbital launch test wasn’t a total loss (it did make it off the launch pad, after all), it is potentially one of the most damaging launches SpaceX has ever conducted.
Luckily, Musk has already started work to correct these mistakes. SpaceX has built a metal diverter beneath the OLM (Orbital Launch Mount), which should stop any soil from being kicked up during the launch, even if the launch pad breaks again. Speaking of the launch pad, the water-cooled steel plate has finally been installed, which should greatly help it survive the insane direct force of Starship. In fact, this steel plate actually constitutes a water deluge system. Rather than being cooled by internal pipework (which many people thought it would be like), it actually sprays a biblical amount of water upwards. Think of it as a giant shower head pointed upwards. This way, the immense heat and energy of the rocket engines will vaporise the water, not the launch pad. This system has already been tested, the video of which is here. But this test was apparently just a fraction of its power. SpaceX claims it can discharge as much as 1.3 million litres of water during a Starship launch!
While all this is very impressive, I can’t help but feel like NASA’s fire trenches are a far easier and already proven solution to this problem…
Considering SpaceX has already rebuilt the launch pad with all the correct parts this time and has a spare Starship ready for another launch, you’d think Musk’s claims of another launch attempt in a month’s time isn’t unrealistic. Sadly, that is far from the case. The San Antonio Express-News has reported that the FAA is still waiting for a report from SpaceX on what steps it will implement to decrease environmental and health risks. In order for the FAA to be able to issue a launch licence for Starship, they not only need this report but will have to assess whether the actions are enough (and potentially go through several rounds of revisions with SpaceX), agree upon it, and wait until the infrastructure, protocols and personnel are in place to execute on it. So even once the FAA gets this report back, it could still be months before a launch licence is given, especially considering the environmental lawsuit lingering in the background.
On the topic of environmental lawsuits, it turns out that the recent water deluge test may have broken EPA laws. As such, Starship has got Musk and SpaceX in hot water yet again.
SpaceX failed to apply for the permits needed to discharge this volume of wastewater, and as such, it has potentially damaged the local environment. You see, the water they were using wasn’t of the same grade that comes out of your tap; instead, it was industrial process wastewater. This means the water can have all manner of pollutants mixed into it, and releasing such a vast amount into the environment could have significantly detrimental effects. This is why SpaceX should have obtained a licence, as the assessment for the licence would ensure the water and its discharge is safe.
Failure to obtain a licence can land a company fines of up to $50,000 per day, or even jail time. Needless to say, I will keep you posted if the EPA or any other environmental body presses charges here.
But this licence breach hides another issue with the water deluge system, as no matter the quality of the water they use, they might not pass EPA pollutant limits. You see, rockets don’t burn clean, even Starship with its methane (natural gas) fuel. As methane naturally contains volatile organic impurities, its combustion produces soot, carbon monoxides, particulates and even potentially toxic and carcinogenic pollutants. Under normal launch conditions, these disperse through the air until their concentrations are low enough not to be a problem. However, the water deluge system will capture many of these emissions and effectively pumps them into the local waterways, which could potentially poison them. This could mean the water deluge system isn’t a viable option for SpaceX, as it is too environmentally damaging.
So the question has to be asked, why is Musk letting the Starship program screw up on such a large scale?
If you are a fan of Musk, then you might say that he is pushing humanity forward faster than anyone else and that such rapid development requires breaking a few eggs. While this viewpoint is completely valid, it isn’t the whole truth.
You see, Musk is an over promiser. By now, Starship was meant to have already successfully launched, done a Lunar mission and taken cargo to Mars and be preparing for a crewed mission to Mars next year. SpaceX also has multi-billion-dollar contracts with commercial partners and even NASA for Starship, with launch dates as early next year. Yet Starship is nowhere near ready to service these commitments. Furthermore, the development of Starship has cost SpaceX nearly $5 billion! Most of those funds have come from external investors who want to see a return on their funds, just as Musk promised.
So really, Musk is having to push so hard not because he intends to advance humans further or take us to Mars. Instead, it is because it could be financially crushing for SpaceX if Starship is delayed much more. As such, Musk is going so fast that significant mistakes like the lack of a proper launch pad or licence for industrial wastewater discharge are going to happen.
The same overly-fast development is what led to the Oceangate disaster. They cut corners to get their vessel up and running, and it cost people their lives. Musk and SpaceX are in danger of doing the same, except this time, it’s the environment and people’s safety that are at risk. It seems this is standard play for Musk though, as there are parallels with how he is handling Twitter and the controversy around Tesla’s FSD autopilot. So let’s hope that the FAA, EPA and environmental charities can hold Musk to account and ensure SpaceX can reach for the stars without sacrificing what we have on Earth.
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