It had been a decade in the making but took less than four minutes for the world’s most powerful rocket to go from historic lift off to a spectacular ball of flames.
Elon Musk’s $3 billion (£2.4 billion) Starship – built to one day take humans to Mars – exploded high above the Gulf of Mexico as the eyes of the world watched on.
A failure many might have assumed, but in contrast to public opinion, Musk, SpaceX and even NASA all hailed the mammoth new rocket’s maiden flight as ‘exciting’ and a success.
Musk was particularly buoyant in the aftermath — vowing to launch again ‘in a few months’.
But just how realistic is this target, what comes next after a successful orbital flight test and when will humans fly Starship for the first time? MailOnline takes a look.
What happened to Starship? It had been a decade in the making but took less than four minutes for the world’s most powerful rocket to go from historic lift off to a ball of flames
Was the launch a success?
Tech billionaire Musk had set low expectations in the lead up to lift off, admitting that there was a 50 per cent chance Starship would blow up.
He later added that he would consider ‘anything that does not result in the destruction of the launchpad itself to be a win’.
Elon Musk’s $3 billion (£2.4 billion) Starship – built to one day take humans to Mars – exploded high above the Gulf of Mexico as the eyes of the world watched on
A failure many might have assumed, but in contrast to public opinion, Musk, SpaceX and even NASA all hailed the mammoth new rocket’s maiden flight as ‘exciting’ and a success
Musk was particularly buoyant in the aftermath — vowing to launch again ‘in a few months’
Starship was first due to launch on Monday last week but this attempt was scrubbed after engineers discovered a frozen valve, leading to the eagerly-anticipated blast off being rescheduled for last Thursday.
Shortly after 08:33 local time (14:33 BST), the world’s most powerful rocket ever built then successfully erupted skywards from its launchpad in south Texas.
However, as it climbed higher and higher, onlookers could see that six of the 33 engines at the base of the vehicle had been shut down or had flamed out.
After two to three minutes, the rocket began tumbling out of control and less than four minutes into the flight it had been intentionally destroyed by SpaceX using onboard charges.
Not reaching orbit and exploding during lift off may have seemed like a failure to most — but not Musk, SpaceX, NASA or other spaceflight experts.
SpaceX said that ‘with a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary.’
‘We cleared the tower which was our only hope,’ said Kate Tice, a SpaceX quality systems engineer.
A throng of SpaceX workers watching a livestream together at the company’s headquarters near Los Angeles cheered wildly as the rocket cleared the launch tower and again when it blew up in the sky.
SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker said the test flight would provide a wealth of important data paving the way for the company to move ahead with additional tests.
A throng of SpaceX workers watching a livestream together at the company’s headquarters near Los Angeles cheered wildly as the rocket cleared the launch tower and again when it blew up in the sky. Musk was among those in the control room (pictured)
Beyond the launch itself, the test mission fell short of reaching several other objectives, such as deploying the Starship vessel into space and reentering Earth’s atmosphere 60 miles off a Hawaiian coast at hypersonic speeds, where it would have faced key aerodynamic forces and blazing heat before plunging into the Pacific.
Still, getting the newly combined Starship and booster rocket off the ground for the first time represented a key milestone in SpaceX’s ambition of sending astronauts back to the moon and ultimately on to Mars.
US Space agency administrator Bill Nelson was particularly glowing in his praise, stating that ‘every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes reward.’
‘Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test—and beyond,’ he added.
When will Starship launch again?
With the launchpad disaster seemingly averted, Musk was bullish in his timeline for Starship to launch again — vowing to do so in one to two months once SpaceX engineers had pored over all the data from the first attempt.
The maverick entrepreneur is famously optimistic when it comes to setting goals, so this should already be taken with a pinch of salt.
Starship has 33 Raptor engines capable of generating 17 million pounds of lift-off thrust. But as it climbed higher and higher, onlookers could see that six of these engines had been shut down or had flamed out
However, SpaceX does have multiple Starship vehicles in production at its Starbase facility in Texas, and the plan is to launch them as soon as they are ready.
The problem, many experts have cautioned, is that not only is the planned launch in a couple of months unlikely, Starship may actually lift over for at least another year.
They blamed this on the fact that, while the launchpad wasn’t blown to smithereens by the rocket, it did suffer significant damage that will require extensive repairs.
How bad was the damage?
SpaceX is yet to release post-launch photos of the Boca Chica pad, but several have emerged which show the damage done by Starship’s 33 first-stage Raptor engines was considerable.
Last Thursday’s lift off ‘left a large crater in the concrete under the launch mount,’ Spaceflight Now said in a tweet that included several photos of the debris-strewn pad, adding that the orbital mount was ‘heavily damaged’.
Max Evans, a photographer for NASASpaceflight.com, also documented some of the damage.
SpaceX is yet to release post-launch photos of the Boca Chica pad, but several have emerged which show the damage done by Starship’s 33 first-stage Raptor engines was considerable
‘Tough to imagine this site being usable again in under a 12-month timeline — would be happy to be proven wrong,’ Evans tweeted in a thread.
Engineer and space entrepreneur Jonathan Goff was slightly more optimistic about how long the repairs might take, although not by much.
‘I think with the pad damage and need to rework the launch infrastructure, that we’re probably at least 7-9 mos out from our next SS/SH (Starship and Super Heavy) flight of any kind. 1 yr to get to a fully orbital and successful flight was being very optimistic,’ Goff wrote on social media.
But ask Eric Berger, senior space editor at science website Ars Technica, and Musk’s plan to launch again within two months is not so far-fetched if you consider SpaceX’s history.
Last Thursday’s lift off ‘left a large crater in the concrete under the launch mount,’ Spaceflight Now said in a tweet that included several photos of the debris-strewn pad, adding that the orbital mount was ‘heavily damaged’
‘For the layperson who sees NASA at work, which can’t afford to fail, this looks like failure,’ he said.
‘But for those who know a little bit more, and about iterative design, this was a tremendous success. SpaceX has 2-3 more rockets ready to go.
‘SpaceX does things differently. Its process is faster, but also messier. Fortunately they can afford to “fail.”
‘They can build 10 Super Heavy first stages in the time NASA builds a single SLS rocket.
‘If the first five fail, but the next five succeed, which is a better outcome?’
Looking to the future, with subsequent launches this kind of damage to the launchpad shouldn’t be so much of a problem.
That’s because Musk has since revealed that SpaceX began building ‘a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount’ three months ago.
It wasn’t ready for the maiden flight, with SpaceX hoping the concrete under the Starbase pad would survive a single launch. However, this proved not to be the case.
The understanding is that the company will install the steel pad prior to Starship’s second flight with the massive Super Heavy booster.
Are there any other issues?
Well to start with there’s a lot of data to go over.
One of the things SpaceX engineers will have to get to the bottom of – if they haven’t already – is why six of the 33 engines at the base of the Starship rocket had been shut down or flamed out.
Also, why did the two halves of the vehicle – the booster and the spacecraft – not separate when they should have done, instead remaining connected?
And why did Starship lose altitude?
As well as answering these questions and more, Musk and SpaceX will have to wait for the outcome of an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which licenses rocket launches in the US.
This is standard practice when a vehicle is lost during a launch like this so it’s not necessarily anything to worry about.
All in all, a second Starship is almost ready to take flight and Musk thinks there’s an 80 per cent chance of one of the vehicles reaching orbit by the end of the year.
There’s just a few hurdles to clear before that happens.
What happens after the orbital flight test is successful?
The maiden orbital flight test came almost four years after Starship was first unveiled.
Its aim was for the Super Heavy booster to separate from Starship after launch and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico.
Had separation occurred, Starship, which has six engines of its own, was to continue to an altitude of nearly 150 miles, completing a near-circle of the Earth before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii about 90 minutes after launch.
The maiden orbital flight test came almost four years after Starship was first unveiled
SpaceX had previously carried out five short test flights of just the upper-stage spacecraft between 2020 and 2021.
The fifth attempt was the first successful one, after the first four resulted in explosions or crashes.
In February, Musk’s company completed a ‘static fire’ test of its Super Heavy booster, igniting 31 of its 33 engines while it was attached to a platform.
Looking at these previous tests, there could be a few more failed attempts before the entire Starship craft and launch system makes its maiden orbital flight.
But once it does, a series of follow up tests will have to follow as SpaceX cranks up the reliability and makes the world’s most powerful rocket safe for humans to ride on.
Of course it won’t come cheap: Musk has previously estimated the total development cost of the Starship project to be between $2 and $10 billion. He later revised this to ‘closer to two or three [billion] than it is to 10.’
When will humans fly?
Only when SpaceX engineers and the FAA are confident that Starship is reliable will people be able to fly on the rocket.
If the rest of the test campaign goes well, humans could climb aboard Starship for the first time in a few years.
The first mission has already been lined up and will be commanded by billionaire US businessman Jared Isaacman, who has already flown to space in a SpaceX Dragon capsule.
This will be followed by the first flight around the moon, which will be led by Japanese retail fashion billionaire Yusaku Maezawa. He will take eight artists with him as part of his DearMoon project.
The first flight around the moon will be led by Japanese retail fashion billionaire Yusaku Maezawa (pictured). He will take eight artists with him as part of his DearMoon project
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa selects eight artists to join him on a flyby around the MOON on a SpaceX spaceship
Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa has revealed the eight artists that will join him on an ambitious civilian flyby around the moon on a SpaceX spaceship in 2023.
Among the male-heavy crew for the ‘dearMoon’ tourist flight is South Korean K-Pop star T.O.P., US Grammy nominated music producer Steve Aoki, Indian TV actor Dev Joshi and British photographer Rhiannon Adam.
Adam, originally from Ireland and based in Hackney in London, is the only woman in the team, but she’ll become the first openly queer woman to go to space.
The civilian crew will orbit the moon aboard SpaceX’s Starship rocket for about seven days without landing on it before returning to Earth.
The dearMoon project has also revealed the specially-created spacesuits to be worn by the crew, designed in-house by SpaceX.
Target launch dates for those two private missions have not yet been announced.
But they, and all of Starship’s other envisioned future flights, are a little closer to reality now that the huge vehicle has actually got off the ground.
NASA also wants to use a version of Starship to land its astronauts on the lunar surface, currently planned for 2025 as part of the Artemis III mission to land the first woman and first person of colour on the moon.
And when should we expect a Mars mission?
SpaceX and Elon Musk’s ultimate aim is to go to Mars.
This vision would involved putting a Starship into orbit, and then refueling it with another Starship so that it can continue on a journey to the Red Planet or beyond.
The eventual objective is to establish bases on the moon and Mars and put humans on the ‘path to being a multi-planet civilisation,’ according to Musk.
‘That’s our goal. I think we’ve got a chance.’
A base on Mars? In terms of a Starship capsule traveling to the Red Planet, Musk wants to install around 40 cabins in the payload area near the front of the upper stage. This artist’s impression shows what it would be like having multiple Starship vehicles on the Martian world
Starship will be capable of carrying up to 100 people to the Red Planet on a journey that is 250 times further than the moon and would take around nine months each way.
Musk and SpaceX have remained tight-lipped about a lot of the details regarding Starship, including images of what the inside will look like, but the 51-year-old has previously said he is looking to install around 40 cabins in the payload area near the front of the upper stage.
‘You could conceivably have five or six people per cabin, if you really wanted to crowd people in,’ the Tesla, SpaceX and Twitter boss added.
‘But I think mostly we would expect to see two or three people per cabin, and so nominally about 100 people per flight to Mars.’
That’s the future, but what about the first missions to the Red Planet?
Well, again Musk was hoping to go within the next few years, but it’s fair to assume any Mars mission with humans onboard is likely to be at the very end of this decade or into the 2030s at the earliest.
HOW WILL STARSHIP WORK, IS IT THE MOST POWERFUL ROCKET EVER AND WHERE WILL IT LAUNCH FROM?
HOW STARSHIP WORKS
Starship aims to be SpaceX’s first fully-reusable rocket, which is part of why the flight costs for Musk’s vehicle could end up 200 times cheaper per launch than most other rockets.
So how will it work?
When it is ready to land on Earth, Starship will initially re-enter the atmosphere at a 60-degree angle before ‘belly-flopping’ to the ground in a horizontal position.
This type of return uses our planet’s atmosphere to slow the vehicle’s descent but makes it unstable.
Starship aims to be SpaceX’s first fully-reusable rocket, which is part of the reason why the flight costs for Musk’s vehicle could end up 200 times cheaper per launch than most other rockets
It is for this reason that Starship will use four steel landing flaps, positioned near the front and rear of the vehicle, to control its descent, working similarly to how a skydiver uses their arms and legs to control a free-fall.
As Starship approaches the ground, it flips back into a vertical position and then uses its Raptor engines as retro-rockets to guide it down for a safe landing.
In November 2019, Musk claimed a Starship launch could cost just $2 million (£1.8 million) each time, thanks to efficiency savings from reusing a rocket.
By comparison, NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS) rocket is estimated to cost an eye-watering $4.1 billion (£3.3 billion) per launch.
IS IT THE BIGGEST ROCKET EVER?
Yes. And not only that, but it is also the most powerful.
Musk’s vehicle packs 16 million pounds (70 Meganewtons) of thrust, almost double that of the other new generation rocket created by NASA and known as the SLS.
You might remember SLS for successfully delivering the Orion spacecraft to orbit last November as part of the Artemis I mission that saw it fly around the moon and back.
Starship is 395ft (120m) tall, with the ship itself measuring 164ft (49m) and the booster 230ft (70m).
No surprise, but SpaceX’s Super Heavy rocket and the accompanying Starship spacecraft are heavy.
When fueled, the whole thing comes in at 11 million pounds.
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