What happened during SpaceX’s Starship test flight.

by The Technical Blogs

Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its Starship rocket from the coast of South Texas just after 7 a.m. Central time on Saturday, a mammoth vehicle that could alter the future of space transportation and help NASA return astronauts to the moon.

Starship is the biggest and most powerful rocket ever to fly. SpaceX aims to make both parts of the vehicle fully and rapidly reusable. That gives it the potential to launch bigger and heavier payloads to space and to significantly drive down the cost of lofting satellites, space telescopes, people and the things they need to live into space.

The second flight of Starship, a powerful vehicle designed to carry NASA astronauts to the moon, was not a complete success. SpaceX did not achieve the test launch’s ultimate objective — a partial trip around the world ending in a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean.

But the flight did show that the company had fixed key issues that arose during the first test flight in April. All 33 engines in the vehicle’s lower booster stage fired, and the rocket made it through stage separation — when the booster falls away and the six engines of the upper stage light up to carry the vehicle to space.

“Just beautiful,” John Insprucker, a SpaceX engineer who was one of the commentators on the SpaceX webcast.

By contrast, the first Starship launch badly damaged the launch site, several engines on the booster failed, fires knocked out the steering of the rocket and the flight termination system took too long to explode.

In the “fail fast, learn faster” approach taken by SpaceX toward rocket design, successfully avoiding a repeat of past failures counts as major progress.

However, the second flight revealed new challenges that Mr. Musk’s engineers must overcome.

Soon after stage separation, the booster exploded — a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” in the jargon of rocket engineers. The upper-stage Starship spacecraft continued heading toward orbit for several more minutes, reaching an altitude of more than 90 miles, but then SpaceX lost contact, likely after the flight termination system detonated.

Engineers will now have to decipher what went wrong on both the booster and the upper-stage spacecraft, make fixes and then try again.

Many outside observers are optimistic that SpaceX will get Starship to fully work.

“They have fixed issues identified in their first flight and got further than ever before with this type of vehicle,” said Phil Larson, who served as a White House space adviser during the Obama administration and later worked on communication efforts at SpaceX. “The magic of engineering is that it is all about learning, iterating the design, and reflying again soon.”

Daniel L. Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, agreed. “This is a large launch system,” he said. “It’s going to take some work to get it to where it needs to go. I have no doubt that the SpaceX team will be able to figure out how to get the launch vehicle working.”

The test journey’s outcome was also the latest split-screen moment in the career of Mr. Musk, a serial entrepreneur who previously transformed electronic payments with PayPal and electric cars with Tesla. As SpaceX prepared for the flight on Friday, Disney and Apple paused their ad spending with another of his companies, the social network X, after Mr. Musk’s endorsement on Wednesday of an antisemitic post.

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