Yesterday, April 20 at 8:33 CST, SpaceX attempted its first orbital launch of the Starship (S24) and Super Heavy Booster (B7). Starship succeeded in clearing the launch tower and surviving through MaxQ, or maximum dynamic pressure, but was terminated 4 minutes after launch.
Update: Mike Killian’s camera’s last image as it was destroyed by a concrete debris from the SpaceX Starship orbital, a.k.a. ballistic trajectory, launch attempt. According to Mike, he has another camera in the LC but SpaceX will be mailing it as the LC is still smoldering.
Starship 24 was the first orbital prototype and Booster 7 was the first SH Booster to have all 33 Raptor engines.
As Starship cleared the tower, the first sign of trouble was that 3 out the Super Heavy Booster’s 33 engines had already failed. The failure of 3 Raptor engines before lift-off would have ended the launch of most rockets (Delta, Atlas, SLS, Falcon 9), which are only released from the launchpad when all systems are nominal. The loss of three engines before lift-off is not considered nominal or safe.
From there, things seemed to go well for the next 25 seconds, at which point something unexpected appeared to happen at the base of the Super Heavy Booster.
At 0:29, and within approximately a couple of seconds, an explosion occurred at the Super Heavy Booster’s base. Some have speculated that it was a hydraulic power unit (HPU)? It also appeared that part of the booster’s cladding appeared to be ejected by the force of the event.
Within a minute into the launch, another 3 engines had failed, for a total of 6 engines out. Unknown at this time is whether the additional Raptor engine failures are due to possible issues with the Raptor engines themselves or that the engines were damaged by debris from launch.
At 2:40, moments before main engine cut-off and staging for Starship, Super Heavy Booster began its arc to orient itself for Starship staging. However, the arc continued into a loop. The booster’s guidance and control (G&C) system did not seem to accept this as a failure of guidance laws. The booster completed over 3 loop de loops over the course of 1 minute and 19 seconds after which the flight termination system (FTS) engaged at 3:59. Failure of the flight termination system to terminate the launch after explosions at the base of the Super Heavy Booster or the booster doing multiple aerial acrobatics is likely something that will need to be resolved before another launch is allowed.
Starship, the launch abort system for the Starship Super Heavy Booster stack, never engaged as Super Booster tumbled over 3 times. There is some photographic evidence that Starship was partially separated from the Super Heavy Booster, but that was likely due to affects from the booster looping during the last 1 minute 19 seconds of its flight.
For over the past three years, there have been worries expressed that the Starship launch pad did not have any of the systems used by NASA and others to diminish the energy of a launch such as a flame trench, flame deflector, and water deluge system. The lack of those energy absorption systems seems to have had a severe affect on the launchpad.
Post launch, it became apparent that erosion at the launchpad area was extensive. A crater several feet deep was gouged out nearly to the width of the Starship launch stand. Concrete panels surrounding the launchpad were gone. There was extensive damage to facilities at the Starship base, including a liquid oxygen tank that was heavily dented.
Debris and chunks of concrete were ejected for up to several hundred yards from the launchpad.
The impact was not just ballistic but also of high speed trajectories that destroyed cars parked over 200 yards away.
After the dust had settled, there appeared to be chunks of concrete strewn across the launch area.
Smaller debris made it all the way to Port Isabel, 5 miles away.
Starship’s first orbital test flight did see successes. Starship cleared the tower and it did make it through maximum dynamic pressure, two significant accomplishments that will feed good data back to SpaceX.
The launch to orbit of SpaceX’s first orbital Starship test flight show several events during the mission that SpaceX and NASA likely will want to remedy before another launch attempt.
NASA in particular is left with some hard choices arising from choosing Starship as its sole lunar lander for the Artemis III mission. There is little question that the schedule for the Starship lunar lander, which was running already a little bit behind, will now be pushed significantly to the right. The test flight of a “skeleton” Starship lunar landing is unlikely to occur in 2024, as planned. There were never plans to test the Starship lunar lander with a crew in Earth orbit, as NASA did with its Lunar Module in Apollo 9, or in lunar orbit, as in Apollo 10. Instead, after the lunar landing test in 2024, the next flight of the Starship lunar lander would occur on Artemis III with a crew.
The lack of proper energy absorption and dampening around the launchpad resulting in destruction of the underlying concrete, ejection of that concrete and underlying soil, resulting in gouging of a large crater under the launchpad means a lot of infrastructure work before the next launch. Some of that work may, likely will, require additional federal government participation.
That the booster was allowed to lift-off without all of its engines working is unusual in today’s launch environment. Since the 1940’s, possibly earlier, launch vehicles have not been released to fly unless all of their engines are working. The reason is simple; if the engines are not working as planned after ignition, there is already a significant problem that could only get worse if the vehicle is unleashed.
The failure of the booster’s guidance & control to detect that the booster was off its normal ascent trajectory, that it was looping during its ascent, and to terminate the flight for a full 1 m 19 s that the booster performed over 3 loop de loops is another issue that will have to be addressed. Such a delay in the flight termination system could have catastrophic consequences. For example, Port Isabel is only 5 miles away from Starbase, a distance that could be covered by a launching Starship in a tiny fraction of the 1 minute and 19 seconds that it took the FTS to finally activate.
More critically for the aspirations of future crewed flight is the failure of the Starship, the launch abort system for the Starship stack, to abort when the booster experienced issues during ascent or when the booster went off its nominal trajectory. Whether this was due to the booster’s own systems not detecting an issue or with Starship remains to be determined.
Whether the Starship test flight failure will force a delay in the launch of Artemis III depends on whether the Artemis III mission itself is already delayed so much that a delay in Starship is meaningless. NASA has no Plan B to the Starship lunar lander. For the first time in American spaceflight history, the goals of the space program, in the case of Artemis III to land astronauts once again on the Moon’s surface, are hitched to the progress of a single space company over which NASA has little or no control.
It is worth reminding that the Starship lunar lander has no descent abort capability. That means that should anything critical go wrong on the Starship lander during descent to the lunar surface, the crew would be forced to wait for its Newtonian-determined end. Anyone thinking NASA is not capable of taking risks certainly doesn’t appreciate the unprecedented risks it is taking in getting the Artemis III crew to the lunar surface over 339,000 miles away.
Later on April 20, SpaceX released the following statement:
Starship gave us quite a show during today’s first flight test of a fully integrated Starship and Super Heavy rocket from Starbase in Texas.
At 8:33 a.m. CT, Starship successfully lifted off from the orbital launch pad for the first time. The vehicle cleared the pad and beach as Starship climbed to an apogee of -39 km over the Gulf of Mexico – the highest of any Starship to-date. The vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble. The flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and ship. As is standard procedure, the pad and surrounding area was cleared well in advance of the test, and we expect the road and beach near the pad to remain closed until tomorrow.
With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today that will help us improve on future flights of Starship. Thank you to our customers, Cameron County, and the wider community for the continued support and encouragement. And congratulations to the entire Space team on an exciting first flight test of