SpaceX Suffers Starship Setback

SpaceX Suffers Starship Setback

A SpaceX Starship prototype literally blew its top today in Boca Chica, TX while propellant was being loaded for a tanking test.  SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk had said earlier that the vehicle would fly to an altitude of 20 kilometers sometime this fall, but after today’s incident downplayed its importance in Starship’s development.  He said he will simply move on to the next prototype iteration.

SpaceX issued a statement this afternoon asserting it is not a serious setback.

The purpose of today’s test was to pressurize systems to the max, so the outcome was not completely unexpected. There were no injuries, nor is this a serious setback.

As Elon tweeted, Mk1 served as a valuable manufacturing pathfinder but flight design is quite different. The decision had already been made to not fly this test article and the team is focused on the Mk3 builds, which are designed for orbit. — SpaceX

Starship is the second stage of a reusable two-stage vehicle that will take cargo and people to Earth orbit and elsewhere in the solar system including the surface of the Moon and Mars.  It is both a rocket stage and crew quarters. The first stage, Super Heavy (formerly Big Falcon Rocket or BFR), is just propellant.

Illustration of Starship (with windows) separating from Super Heavy (lower left). Credit: SpaceX

The company completed two successful hover tests of a small “hopper” in July and August to demonstrate that small vehicle could lift off, fly to a certain altitude, move horizontally, then land close its launch pad.  The tests generated a lot of excitement in the space community as did an update by Musk on the Starship program on September 28.

At the time he said the Mark 1 (“Mk1”) prototype that failed today would make a flight to 20 kilometers altitude in one to two months and Starship itself would be ready to take a crew to Earth orbit as early as next year.  The cryogenic tanking test today was thought to be related to the 20 kilometer test so SpaceX’s statement that the “decision had already been made to not fly this test article” came as a surprise.

SpaceX’s facility is readily visible along the beaches near Boca Chica, which is close to Brownsville. Some area residents carefully monitor activities there and post photos and video to Twitter.

Mary (@BocaChicaGal) is affiliated with the website (not a NASA website), which posted her video.  LabPadre (@LabPadre) posted to YouTube. Other shots were posted to Twitter by @SpacePadreIsle.

Musk is building a Mk2 prototype at SpaceX’s facilities near Cape Canaveral, FL.  Launches are planned to take place from both sites.  Today, Musk said he would now move on to Mk3.

What all of this means for the Starship schedule is unclear.  In addition to Musk’s bold statement about flying a crew to Earth orbit as early as next year, on Monday SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said they plan to land a cargo version of Starship on the Moon in 2022 and hopefully return it to Earth.  Her comments were part of NASA’s announcement that SpaceX is one of five new companies added to the pool of Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) providers that will send robotic landers to the lunar surface carrying NASA payloads. Shotwell said they would get “a lot” of experience with cargo flights before sending people to the Moon’s surface.

Musk has an agreement to send someone around the Moon in 2023, but not land there.



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