April 25, 2023
Melinda Head

SpaceX Starship: Kaboom!

A First Step into the Future

The largest and most powerful rocket ever built was unsuccessfully launched, without a crew, from a private facility in Boca Chica, TX, on Thursday, after a frozen valve caused fueling issues and suspended operations 3 days earlier.

The rocket cleared its tower and successfully lifted off; however, after reaching a peak altitude of about 20 miles, it experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” (i.e. blew up) when its booster separation failed.

Happily, the all-important Starbase launch pad remained intact – a feat Elon Musk earlier said he would consider a success.

SpaceX Starship aims to be a new, reusable form of space transportation that carries payloads of up to 250 tons, crew and even passengers into Space. Initially orbiting around the earth, its higher aspirations include voyages to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

The Starship has 33 Raptor engines designed to work together in synchronicity within a booster stage called Super Heavy, and 6 engines in its upper stage, known also as Starship – 3 are used while in the Earth’s atmosphere and 3 are used within the vacuum of space.

33 Raptor engines make up the booster component of the Starship. A mixture of methane and liquid oxygen fuel the engines, propelling the rocket ship upward

Weighing in at about 5,000 tons when stacked and fueled, this largest-ever rocket is 394 ft. fall and 30 ft. wide. It is fueled with more than 10 million pounds of methane and liquid oxygen. The rocket ship’s Super Heavy booster engines generate 16.7 million pounds of thrust for 2 minutes and 49 seconds, burning through more than 40,000 pounds of propellant per second, as the vehicle blasts into space.

Methane has been chosen over hydrogen, the go-to fuel choice for most high-powered rockets, because it is less expensive to produce and easier to handle; however, to use methane, the rocket’s liquid oxygen needs to be chilled to very low temperatures, which caused a value to freeze on Monday’s aborted liftoff.

On Thursday, the two halves of the rocket did not separate, as planned, resulting in destruction of the airship minutes into its flight. If all had gone right, Starship would have pushed on with its own upper stage engines for a further 6 minutes and 23 seconds.  By then, it would have been traveling over the Caribbean, cruising through space more than 100 miles above the Earth’s surface. The entire voyage would have taken only 90 minutes, starting at Starbase on the Gulf Coast, flying east of the Gulf of Mexico and between the Straits of Florida, finishing off near the northwest coast of Kauai, part of the Hawaiian archipelago.  

Although both Super Heavy and Starship are designed to be fully reusable (and, thus, more economical), Thursday’s unsuccessful flight would have been the only outing for Booster 7 and Ship 24, with components splashing down in the water rather than making vertical, powered landings on land or ship (a future endeavor).

There is still much work to be done at SpaceX … but, as we all know, practice makes perfect. According to Elon Musk, another attempt will be made “in a few months”.  We will eagerly await that event.

“With a test like this, success comes from what we learn.” (SpaceX)

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About the Author

A serial entrepreneur, Melinda is a sociologist and statistician who believes there is no currency with greater value than knowledge

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