SpaceX Starship 2nd test flight: A blast! And a success

SpaceX Starship: Screenshot of a rocket lifting off with orange fire and smoke below along a quiet beachfront.
SpaceX made a 2nd attempt at launching its Starship on November 18, 2023. Read more about the SpaceX Starship launch and explosions, below. Image via SpaceX.

It was a picture-perfect liftoff for the 2nd orbital test flight of the SpaceX Starship. But it ended with a bang. Two, in fact.

The 20-minute test window for the 2nd launch of SpaceX’s mighty Starship opened at 7 a.m. CT (13 UTC) on Saturday, November 18, 2023. After a brief delay, the powerful rocketship lifted off slowly and majestically from SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

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Unfortunately, neither stage of the test vehicle survived the flight. Following a successful stage separation about 165 seconds into the mission, the main stage flipped itself around for its planned touchdown in the Gulf of Mexico. Then it exploded. The RUD – rapid unscheduled disassembly – came about 30 seconds after stage separation.

Starship’s 2nd stage continued its journey despite the booster’s explosion. Mission control, however, lost contact with the vehicle soon after. A 2nd stage RUD is suspected. Given the speed and altitude when the 2nd stage stopped communicating, it’s likely it continued well along its planned path.

A replay of the epic launch is available on the SpaceX official Twitter account.

The greatest rocket ever flown

In case you haven’t heard, Starship is the world’s tallest and most powerful rocket. And this 2nd Starship test launch has been anticipated for some months, at least since the first test launch – which sent aloft the most powerful rocket ever flown, in April 2023 – ended in a dramatic mid-air explosion. Among other problems, the launch also obliterated the concrete launch pad beneath the mighty rocket and blew out some windows.

Afterwards, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had questions. And SpaceX could not launch Starship without further FAA approval. In the nick of time, on Wednesday of this week, the FAA granted SpaceX a license to fly its 2nd Starship.

The nod from the FAA – which was much awaited by both space fans and SpaceX – arrived just three days before the hoped-for launch.

FAA approval at last

In an email statement, the FAA said the aerospace company addressed all the agency’s concerns following Starship’s first test flight in April 2023.

SpaceX recently provided the FAA with additional information regarding operation of a deluge system, addition of a forward heat shield interstage to the vehicle, and expansion of the Area of Potential Effects for cultural resources.

Musk said Starship was ready in September

Space fans got excited in September about a possible launch of Starship. It would have been the 2nd launch of a Starship; the first one launched successfully but ended in a rapid unscheduled disassembly (RUD) – an explosion – over the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2023.

There was excitement for the 2nd launch of Starship, but there were also maritime warnings both in the Gulf of Mexico and near Hawaii. CEO Elon Musk had announced on September 6, 2023 – via X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter – that everything was in order.

Then paperwork intervened …

63 corrective actions needed

Starship must have FAA approval to launch. Finally, on September 8, 2023, the FAA broke its silence. On the day some were hoping to see Starship’s 2nd flight, we instead got a statement from the FAA, saying SpaceX had a lot of work left to do:

The final report cites multiple root causes of the April 20, 2023, mishap and 63 corrective actions SpaceX must take to prevent mishap reoccurrence.

SpaceX, the agency said, needed a safer approach to testing its monster rocket:

Corrective actions include redesigns of vehicle hardware to prevent leaks and fires, redesign of the launch pad to increase its robustness, incorporation of additional reviews in the design process, additional analysis and testing of safety critical systems and components including the Autonomous Flight Safety System, and the application of additional change control practices.

For its part, SpaceX said in a quickly issued response (also September 8, 2023) that it was already taking steps to address the FAA’s concerns. The company said it learned “numerous lessons” from the first flight.

And SpaceX said in its September 8 statement that the company must maintain its breakneck pace. It said that rapid pace is key to the company’s success:

This rapid iterative development approach has been the basis for all of SpaceX’s major innovative advancements, including Falcon, Dragon, and Starlink.

It’s likely SpaceX knew generally what the FAA had to say, as the company said its investigation was overseen by the FAA, NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board.

SpaceX Starship: Blue sea and blue sky in the background, with silver bullet-shaped rocket in girders in the foreground.
The SpaceX Starship 25 (S25) was hoisted aloft in the chopsticks lifting mechanism at Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on September 5, 2023. In October, SpaceX performed tests and rehearsals on the launchpad as they awaited final approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to try launching again. Image from SpaceX, via X. Used with permission.

What went wrong with SpaceX Starship the 1st time?

SpaceX also gave a rundown of how its first attempt to get Starship to orbit went wrong. From the moment the engines ignited, there were problems that continued until the vehicle finally exploded about 39 km (24 miles) over the Gulf of Mexico.

The company provided a brief timeline of the flight and how they’re going to prevent a repeat of its mishaps:

During ascent, the vehicle sustained fires from leaking propellant in the aft end of the Super Heavy booster, which eventually severed connection with the vehicle’s primary flight computer. This led to a loss of communications to the majority of booster engines and, ultimately, control of the vehicle. SpaceX has since implemented leak mitigations and improved testing on both engine and booster hardware. As an additional corrective action, SpaceX has significantly expanded Super Heavy’s preexisting fire suppression system in order to mitigate against future engine bay fires.

Also addressed was the disintegration of a massive reinforced concrete slab under the launchpad during liftoff. SpaceX’s new fire suppression system will prevent another storm of concrete during the next test flight.

SpaceX also made significant upgrades to the orbital launch mount and pad system in order to prevent a recurrence of the pad foundation failure observed during the first flight test. These upgrades include significant reinforcements to the pad foundation and the addition of a flame deflector, which SpaceX has successfully tested multiple times.

So the previous attempt in April 2023 to get Starship to orbit ended in a bang. It also added RUD – rapid unscheduled disassembly – to the list of nerdy things space geeks like to say.

Bottom line: SpaceX’s Starship – world’s most powerful rocket – launched successfully Saturday, November 18, 2023. But it ended with a bang. Two, in fact.

November 18, 2023

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