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Starship: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back?
Was the recent launch a failure or a success?
Last Saturday, at 7 am, thousands of people gathered at Boca Chica and started expectantly into the early morning sky to witness history. The world’s largest-ever rocket, SpaceX’s Starship, was set to reattempt an orbital space flight after its previous catastrophic failure in April. Hopes were high that this time, this revolutionary vehicle could make it to the heavens and kickstart a new era of super-heavy space flight. But, just 8 minutes into the 90-minute mission, both stages of the rocket exploded, dashing any hopes of reaching orbit or proving that either stage could successfully land and be reused after a full-scale launch (which is the central design aspect of Starship). Despite these setbacks, SpaceX has claimed the launch was a success. So, was it?
Let’s start with what exactly happened on Saturday. The initial launch went far better than last time. Unlike the April attempt, which destroyed the launch pad and caused a vast amount of environmental and property damage, the launch pad stayed in one piece, and no damage was reported. That is a giant leap forward! Back in April, the first stage failed to separate, prompting the rocket to self-destruct to mitigate damage. This time, however, separation was successful, and the first stage (also known as the Super Heavy Booster) started its return flight and landing procedure. This is another vast leap forward, as ensuring the robust and reliable separation process is a vital pillar of any usable space flight vehicle.
But, after that, things went downhill. Rather than returning to Earth and landing in that familiar SpaceX way, the Super Heavy Booster experienced what SpaceX called a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Also known as blowing up… After that, the Starship (second stage) was able to fire its engines and make it to an altitude of 90 miles, which is technically in space. However, it was still far from reaching a stable orbit, which required a higher altitude and far higher speed. Sadly, this Starship wouldn’t make it that far, as contact with it was lost after 8 minutes of flight. The onboard computers recognised this issue and conducted a self-detonation to mitigate any possible damage upon re-entry.
Now, what makes Starship so revolutionary isn’t its enormous payload but its reusability and cost. Both stages are designed to return to Earth and land safely using retro rockets. This means that each rocket, which costs hundreds of millions of dollars to produce, won’t just be used once and thrown away. As such, Musk reckons Starship could cost as little as $10 million per launch, or just a sixth of their far smaller Falcon 9 partially reusable rocket. Such a dirt-cheap ticket to space can open up the heavens and enable rampant industry and exploration.
You’d think then that a “successful launch” would entail not only Starship entering orbit, but at least one of the stages making it back to Earth unscathed. But apparently not. SpaceX has called the launch a success. They are both right and wrong.
I have covered this before, but the forces and engineering tolerances at play with rockets are extreme. There is only so much stimulation and design work that can be done to accommodate such conditions. As such, rocket development still has to happen in the real world. So, failed launches are expected, and data gathered from each successive failure can help engineers tweak their designs and slowly develop a reliable rocket over multiple launch attempts.
This is why this launch can be considered a “success.” The last launch was catastrophic, leading to lawsuits and the FAA revoking Starship’s licence to launch (read more here). But SpaceX learnt from this epic failure and has redesigned the launch pad (or, to put it another way, actually bothered to build it properly this time) and made over a thousand changes to the design of the actual rocket. As the recent launch didn’t destroy the launch pad, the stages could separate, and Starship even made it to space; this indicates that these changes have worked. It has verified SpaceX’s ability to use data from a failed launch to further refine their designs and get closer to a functional Starship.
However, calling it a success also glosses over the serious issues at hand and the expenses this launch took.
Firstly, the FAA has deemed the launch a “mishap” and will supervise an investigation into its cause. This is routine and not unusual for a failed launch (as in one that ended in explosions). But, it does mean that if SpaceX has, yet again, failed to take due care in ensuring the flight’s safety, then they can revoke Starship’s licence yet once more. As we will come to in a minute, we have reason to believe Musk and SpaceX were not overly concerned with safety, so this is possible. However, as yet, there is no evidence that such an outcome could happen, but these investigations take time, so we won’t know for a while.
Secondly, there is the fact that Starship is now seriously late. Musk is known for proclaiming wildly optimistic deadlines, but Starship is taking far longer than anyone expected. Some expected the rocket to be fully operational by the end of 2021! Sadly, manufacturing delays, as well as several launch failures (including failed hop tests of single stages), have pushed this date back significantly. As it stands, Starship might not be ready for commercial uncrewed operations for a few years, and crewed spaceflight seems a long way off.
This is a massive problem as Starship development costs billions of dollars annually. SpaceX can spend this money as it already has launch contracts for Starship, such as its multi-billion dollar contract with NASA for its Artemis missions, JSAT geostationary satellite delivery and its own Starlink satellite launches. But even NASA is concerned that Starship won’t be ready for their 2025 uncrewed and 2026 crewed Artemis missions that will use Starship, and is considering delaying the missions. As such, SpaceX might have to spend far longer and more money on Starship development than it expected. To make this situation worse, income from the project seems set to be delayed massively if planned launches are pushed back by years.
This could mean SpaceX will struggle to meet its launch cost target, as SpaceX will have to somehow pay off this vast development cost in the long run. This isn’t a massive problem for them commercially, as Starship could cost six times more than its current planned launch cost and still dramatically undercut its rivals in total launch payload and price. But, regarding Musk’s plans with Starlink and Mars exploration/colonisation, which both depend on super cheap Starship flights, this price inflation could derail his aggressive plans.
Then there are the background issues of this launch, tainting SpaceX’s reputation.
Firstly, the lawsuit against the FAA and SpaceX for their vast environmental destruction back in April remains ongoing (read more here). While this launch didn’t damage the environment in the same way, there are still plenty of controversial issues surrounding it, such as its use of wastewater to cool the launch pad, potentially contaminating the delicate ecosystem near the Boca Chica launch site. What’s more, the fact the launch was allowed to go ahead before these lawsuits wrapped up is troubling for many environmental activists, as it shows the FAA and SpaceX aren’t prioritising growth over safeguarding the environment.
There is also a human cost to Musk’s desperation to get Starship off the ground. A recent article by Reuters has highlighted a report which details SpaceX worker’s claims that Starship’s rushed launch came at the expense of their safety training. As such, several workers have suffered severe injuries, including crushed limbs, amputations, electrocutions, head and eye wounds and even one death (read more here). Why this report is not being more widely shared is beyond me, but it shows a deep moral bankruptcy with Musk and SpaceX that needs to be scrutinised more.
So, yes, the launch was a success in terms of it being a stepping stone towards Starship finally reaching full operation. However, calling it a success is to ignore the broader issues at play. Regarding the actual launch’s outcomes, SpaceX’s progress, and the background troubles tarnishing SpaceX and Musk, it was a failure. What’s worrying is that Musk seems happy to build his space empire on a compromised foundation of broken promises, environmental lawsuits, missed deadlines, PR nightmares and a disregard for workers’ rights. Needless to say, his lofty ambitions will struggle to be built on such a foundation. After all, there is no point in reaching for the stars if we damage Earth and its inhabitants in the process.
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