Four Tries, Four Failures, But SpaceX Undeterred on Starship Tests

Four Tries, Four Failures, But SpaceX Undeterred on Starship Tests

SpaceX suffered its fourth Starship test failure in a row today, but company founder and chief engineer Elon Musk remains undeterred, tweeting plans for the next test. He is expanding operations at his Starbase test facility in Boca Chica, TX and encouraging people to move there to work for SpaceX.

Over the course of the past four months, tests of Starship prototypes Serial Number 8 (SN8), SN9, SN10, and now SN11 have ended in what are whimsically called Rapid Unscheduled Disassemblies (RUDs) — explosions.

Today’s test of SN11 lifted off at 8:00 am Central Time (9:00 am Eastern) in heavy fog at Boca Chica. Typically these tests are later in the day, but this one was postponed from yesterday because an FAA inspector could not reach Boca Chica in time. According to a statement from the FAA, it is requiring the on-site presence of an inspector because SpaceX violated its launch license for SN8.

On March 12, the FAA revised the SpaceX Starship license to require an FAA safety inspector to be present at the Boca Chica site for every flight. This is the result of FAA’s continuing oversight of SpaceX to ensure compliance with federal regulations to protect public safety, including issues arising from the SN8 launch in December 2020. SpaceX must provide adequate notice of its launch schedule to allow for a FAA safety inspector to travel to Boca Chica. — FAA Statement, March 29, 2021

These tests are of a three-engine prototype of Starship, the second stage of SpaceX’s space transportation system to take people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. Tests of the first stage, Super Heavy, are expected to begin soon.

Illustration of a Starship after separating from its Super Heavy rocket. Credit: SpaceX

During the tests, the Starship prototype is launched to an altitude of 10 kilometers and performs a series of in-flight maneuvers before returning to land at an adjacent pad.  At least that’s the plan. The landings have not been successful.  In SpaceX’s video of today’s test, the camera freezes at T+5:49, but the catastrophic ending is easy to hear. After a few seconds,  Space X commentator John Insprucker simply calls it “another exciting test.”, a commercial website that has its own observers and cameras at Boca Chica, tweeted this “Final view of SN11 in the air” —  with a very loud explosion followed by debris raining down from the sky and hitting the remote camera.

Musk soon tweeted that “something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today,” ruefully adding that “at least the crater is in the right place!”

In a statement, the FAA said it will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of what happened today.

The FAA will oversee SpaceX’s investigation of its March 30 Starship SN11 prototype mishap at the company’s facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The vehicle experienced an anomaly during the landing phase of the flight resulting in loss of the vehicle.

The FAA’s top priority in regulating commercial space transportation is to protect public safety during launch and reentry operations. The FAA will approve the final mishap investigation report and any corrective actions SpaceX must take before return to flight is authorized. — FAA Spokesperson

Under the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act and its amendments, the Department of Transportation, of which FAA is part, facilitates, promotes and regulates the commercial space launch and reentry business. Its regulatory authority is intended primarily to protect the public from harm in the event of a launch or reentry accident.

SpaceX churns out these prototypes at a regular pace and views failures as learning experiences. Musk went right on to tweet about the next test, which will be SN15, a new version incorporating a number of improvements.

SN20 will be a major technology upgrade for orbital flight.

He encouraged people to move to nearby Brownsville, TX to work for SpaceX as it expands operations and revealed he is donating $10 million to revitalize downtown Brownsville plus $20 million for county schools. He is seeking to rename Boca Chica and the surrounding area “Starbase” and already refers to his test facility that way.


This article has been updated.

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