Starship Gets Further on Second Test, But Still Short of Goal

Starship Gets Further on Second Test, But Still Short of Goal

The second orbital flight test of SpaceX’s Starship rocket got further than the first, but still fell short of the goal.  The giant rocket lifted off and the two stages separated, but the first stage then exploded. The second stage continued firing for many minutes, but the Automated Termination System triggered as the engines were close to the end of their burn. SpaceX seemed delighted with the results anyway having gotten as far as they did.  Now they will work to find out what happened and try again. The FAA licenses commercial space launches and SpaceX will need a new license before the next flight.

Liftoff from Starbase at Boca Chica, TX came at 7:02 am Central Time (8:02 am Eastern). The 120 meter (394 foot) tall rocket slowly left the pad and headed out over the Gulf of Mexico with all 33 first stage Raptor engines firing.

All 33 Raptor engines are firing on Starship’s first stage, Super Heavy. Screengrab from SpaceX webcast, November 18, 2023.

After the failure of the first test on April 20, SpaceX modified how the first and second stages separate. Today they used a technique called “hot staging” where the second stage engines start firing while it is still attached to the first stage.

That part of the test flight went well although the first stage, Super Heavy, exploded as it fell back to what was intended to be a splashdown in the Gulf.

Commentators on SpaceX’s live webcast said they realized it was a possibility due to the “incredibly dynamic” stage separation that “put a lot of load on the top of the booster.” They will “take the data and figure out how we can make the booster better” for next time.

The second stage, Starship, did not appear to have been affected. Its six engines fired and Starship continued to ascend. The engines should have shut off 8 minutes and 33 seconds after liftoff.  At about that point, loud cheering could be heard on the webcast from SpaceX’s Hawthorne, CA headquarters suggesting all was well.

The flight profile was for Starship to continue eastward around the globe to splashdown in the ocean north of Hawaii. For this test flight, it was not intended to actually go into orbit even though it is often referred to as Orbital Flight Test-2 or OFT-2. SpaceX designates it Integrated Flight Test-2 or IFT-2.

That was not what happened today, however.

SpaceX’s John Insprucker soon announced that they had lost signal from Starship. “We think we may have lost the second stage. … What we believe right now is that the Automated Flight Termination system on the second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn as we were headed downrange out over the Gulf of Mexico.”

According to data displayed on the webcast, Starship reached an altitude of 148 kilometers (92 miles) and a speed of 24,124 km per hour (14,990 miles per hour).

The cause is under investigation. Commercial space launches and reentries must be licensed by the FAA, which issued an updated statement at 11:57 am ET that it will oversee SpaceX’s mishap investigation, as it did after the first failure, to ensure the company complies with its “FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements.”

SpaceX emphasizes that these are test flights and they learn something every time whether or not it is a complete success.  Already they are heralding the fact that all 33 first stage engines and six second stage engines fired and they successfully executed hot staging.

Starship is critical to SpaceX’s future plans not only for launching satellites into Earth orbit, but as the Human Landing System for NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon, and Elon Musk’s vision of sending millions of people to live on Mars.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson offered his own praise for the progress made today.

This article has been updated.

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