SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s plans to launch another test flight of Starship within “one to two months” may be, ironically, up in the air — pending repairs to the launch site. Last week’s launch of the pioneering spacecraft came to a dramatic end when the first and second stages failed to separate mid-flight, entered a spin, and subsequently exploded when engineers employed the craft’s self-destruct mechanism.
Despite this “rapid, unscheduled disassembly”, the mission was successful in that it surpassed Musk’s low expectations and provided valuable data to refine the next launch. However, the sheer force of the “world’s most powerful” rocket’s exhaust blasted a crater beneath its launch mount, sending concrete fragments flying and damaging parts of the nearby launch infrastructure — with one expert saying it may take “several months” to fix.
Last Thursday’s test flight from the Starbase spaceport in Boca Chica, Texas, represented the first time that the two stages of Starship were launched in combination.
These parts include the “Super Heavy” booster rocket and the second-stage spacecraft, which confusingly is also referred to as Starship. Both are designed to be reusable, with the former capable of landing vertically back at its original launch site.
Together, SpaceX have said, the pair “represent a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”
In fact, NASA has their eyes on using a future version of Starship to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon as part of the Artemis programme.
Super Heavy is powered by 33 liquid methane and liquid oxygen -fuelled “Raptor” engines that afford the rocket twice the thrust of the Saturn V rockets used by NASA during the Apollo spaceflight program.
It was this colossal power during blast off that proved a little too much for Starbase’s launch pad to handle.
Part of the problem at Starbase is that the Boca Chica, Texas-based launch facility lacks a feature known as a “flame trench” — a channel run beneath a launchpad designed to divert rocket exhaust away from the craft in a controlled fashion.
In fact, before NASA could launch its 322-feet-tall Space Launch System (SLS) rocket for the first time on the Artemis I mission last November, engineers had to overhaul the flame trench at Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
On Friday, Mr Musk wrote on Twitter that SpaceX had, three months ago, begun work constructing a “massive water-cooler, steel plate” to go underneath the launch mount.
He added: “[This] wasn’t ready in time — and we wrongly thought, based on static fire data, that Fondag would make it through one launch.”
(Fondag is the US brand name for a type of heavy-duty, calcium aluminate-based cement.)
The SpaceX CEO went on to say: “The force of the engines when they throttled up may have shattered the concrete, rather than simply eroding it.
“The engines were only at half thrust for the static fire test.”
Despite the damage to Stabase, Mr Musk tweeted that it “looks like we can be ready to launch again in 1 to 2 months.”
This was a more optimistic estimate than the entrepreneur had offered just the day before — when he said SpaceX had “learned a lot for [the] next test launch in a few months.”
However, Mr Musk has form for offering overly-optimistic timescales for the development of his many projects.
Given this, it remains to be seen whether this latest ambitious deadline is something on which he and his subordinates can deliver.
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Independent experts are a little more sceptical about how quickly SpaceX will be able to restore Starship’s launch pad to working order — and protect it from similar damage in the future.
For example, astronautics and engineering systems expert Professor Olivier de Weck of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told the AFP that repairing the crater beneath the launch pad “will take several months”.
“The main damage to the launch pad is underneath, where the flames impinge on the ground,” he continued, adding: “The radius of debris and disturbance was probably bigger than anybody anticipated.”
In footage of the launch, debris can be seen flying over distances of more than 1,000 feet — and the resulting dust cloud from launch is reported to have reached a nearby town several miles away.
No-one was hurt in the launch, however, and Prof. de Weck shared the evaluation that the test flight, in the context of SpaceX’s trial-and-error approach. was “more a success than a failure”.
He added: “The reason they’re achieving these incredible capabilities is because they are willing to take risks and break things. But they learn from it.”
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