SpaceX’s Starship — the largest launch vehicle ever built in human history — launched on its second-ever flight on Saturday, taking off from the company’s Starbase launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas. But shortly after the upper stage separated and reached its target altitude, it went through a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” according to SpaceX. Basically, it exploded.
This was the second test flight for the Starship system. The first one happened in April this year. Even that launch ended in an explosion. I am sure you can see somewhat of a pattern forming. “Such an incredibly successful day. Even though we did have a rapid unscheduled disassembly of both the Super Heavy Booster and the ship,” said a SpaceX announcer during a live stream of the launch on Saturday.
Starship liftoff in slow motion pic.twitter.com/PuWMVyU6Lc
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) November 18, 2023
Calling it an “incredibly successful day” is equally as untruthful as calling it a complete failure. The actual truth is this—SpaceX managed to launch the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built. Compared to its first flight, Starship went much further since the booster separated from the ship before it disintegrated. It would be most accurate to say that the test was a partial success, and SpaceX needs to learn from its mistakes to improve further.
NASA administrator Bill Nelson congratulated SpaceX on the launch, saying “Congrats to the teams who made progress on today’s flight test. Spaceflight is a bold adventure demanding a can-do spirit and daring innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn—then fly again.
Congrats to the teams who made progress on today’s flight test.
Spaceflight is a bold adventure demanding a can-do spirit and daring innovation. Today’s test is an opportunity to learn—then fly again.
— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) November 18, 2023
Nelson is correct. Space is hard. What is important is that you keep trying until you get it right. This is especially true for a startup like SpaceX. The Elon Musk-led company’s philosophy has been to fail faster and keep improving until you get it right. That is exactly why it is easily the most successful private space technology company.
Let me illustrate. Both SpaceX and Boeing, an aerospace industry heavyweight, were given contracts by NASA in 2014 to develop a crewed spacecraft to take astronauts to the International Space Station. NASA gave Boeing a $4.2 billion contract while SpaceX was given $2.6 billion. Since then, SpaceX has launched astronauts to the International Space Station eight times with its Crew Dragon spacecraft. Boeing has not managed even one launch with its Starliner.
But that is not to say that SpaceX is getting everything right. If it had succeeded with the test on Saturday, Starship would have been cleared for additional crucial tests next year to prove that it can transfer hundreds of tons of fuel between two spaceships in orbit. Eventually, Starship would also be tested for its ability to carry crew beyond low orbit and into deep space.
This is because NASA selected SpaceX to provide the human landing system that will transport Artemis 3 astronauts from an Orion spacecraft in lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon near its south pole.
The Artemis program has already been hit with multiple delays, and Artemis 2, the second mission of the series, is now set to launch in November 2024. Even if NASA manages to send astronauts on a trip around the Moon and back by then, delays to Starship could delay the Artemis 3 mission.
The funny thing is that NASA and SpaceX are two very different organisations. The government space agency is very bureaucratic and takes things very slowly, making sure that everything is right with each test before going forward with it. The private space company moves fast, and once something goes wrong, it fixes it and improves it before repeating it. This process eventually results in success.
Despite the deep differences in space exploration philosophy, the two organisations are heavily dependent on each other. NASA plans to use SpaceX technology for many of its future missions exploring the Moon, Mars and beyond. SpaceX is heavily dependent on NASA for the contracts that keep the company going. An almost cinema-worthy story of two brothers who need to see past their differences and work together.