On April 20, 2023, during its inaugural flight, the Starship remained airborne for just under four minutes. Elon Musk, CEO and Chief Engineer of SpaceX, had expressed skepticism about its success beforehand. In a Twitter Space meeting a few days before liftoff, Musk stated, “If we get far enough away from the launch pad before something goes wrong, I would consider that to be a success. Just don’t blow up the launch pad.”
Ultimately, Musk’s wish was not fulfilled. The launch pad at the SpaceX Starbase near Boca Chica, Brownsville, Texas, sustained significant damage during this flight experiment—not due to an explosion but rather due to miscalculations and structural deficiencies, leading to the partial destruction of the launch pad. During a rocket launch, substantial energy is primarily released through the burning of engine gases.
At NASA’s launchpads, these thunderous flames are diverted through “Flame Trenches.” However, in Boca Chica, SpaceX opted for a different solution: a large water-cooled steel plate to absorb the force of the rocket engines. Unfortunately, the plate wasn’t ready in time for the April launch, and a decision was made to proceed without it.
The result was an eight-meter-deep crater where a launch pad was supposed to be. According to local media, buildings in Port Isabel, a Texan city ten kilometers from the SpaceX launch site in Boca Chica, trembled during the launch, at least one window shattered, and the debris damaged vehicles. Fortunately, no injuries were reported. In a tweet two days later, Musk explained, “The force of the engines when they throttled up may have shattered the concrete, rather than simply eroding it. The engines were only at half thrust for the static fire test.”
The destruction of the launch pad also prompted the intervention of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the aviation authority of the United States. On October 31, the authority announced the conclusion of its Starship safety review, evaluating the risks of another launch to public health and property. It’s important to note that this announcement does not constitute approval for a launch, as the consent of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (United States Fish and Wildlife Service) is still pending.
Initially, the first launch of the most powerful rocket ever built seemed promising. The 120-meter-tall and 5,000-ton-fueled super-heavy payload vehicle ascended into the sky on April 20 at 8:33 AM local time (3:33 PM CET). The mission plan outlined a 90-minute flight, taking the Starship from the Starbase over the Gulf of Mexico eastward across Asia, completing three-quarters of an orbit around the Earth before falling into the Pacific near Hawaii. However, within the first minutes, at least five out of the total 33 Raptor engines of the booster failed. While a minor loss could have been manageable, the probability of reaching the intended altitude rapidly decreased with fewer than 25 remaining engines.
If the spacecraft’s engines had functioned as planned, the first stage would have been theoretically separated after three minutes of flight. For the further journey, the nine engines of the second stage would have taken over. However, this did not happen, as the two stages refused to separate. The rocket began to spin, became uncontrollable, and eventually exploded.
The detonation itself was not an accident but the result of the Flight Termination System (FTS). Essentially, it acts as a self-destruct mechanism to prevent endangerment of people or buildings on the ground. Whether the FTS was automatically triggered by the out-of-control spinning or manually activated from the ground was not initially disclosed by SpaceX.
At first glance, it was a failure, but the initial launch nonetheless yielded a substantial amount of crucial data. Such a “fly-and-fail approach” exposes weaknesses in the system before the final rocket carries the actual payload or crew. These, albeit brief, flights provide engineers with the opportunity to preemptively address potential failures at critical points.
The question of whether the past seven months have been sufficient for this purpose is debatable. Nevertheless, SpaceX, via X (formerly Twitter), has tentatively announced the second launch of the Starship for November 17. Waiting for regulatory clearance is mentioned both in the statement and by Elon Musk.
The design changes in the second iteration of the rocket are notable. SpaceX has modified the stage separation process, with the upper stage igniting its engines during separation from the booster stage. Additionally, SpaceX engineers have introduced a new venting system for this process.
According to a mission overview provided by SpaceX, the first test flight of Starship yielded valuable insights that directly influenced numerous enhancements in both the vehicle and ground infrastructure. The focus of the test flight was on the new separation system and an advanced Throttleable Vernier Control (TVC) system for the powerful Raptor engines.
Effects on a Nature Reserve?
Regarding the ground infrastructure, SpaceX has restored the launch pad for orbital launches, reinforcing the foundations in the process. Additionally, the initially planned water-cooled steel shield has been replaced with a sophisticated water flooding system. The approval of this water spray system is still pending with the environmental authorities. Officials are concerned about the potential impacts of launches using this system on the flora and fauna in the Boca Chica Wildlife Refuge, an area near the Starbase facility.
Whether the launch proceeds depends not only on environmental agencies but also significantly on weather conditions. According to the National Weather Service, clear sunshine is anticipated.