SpaceX’s ‘Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly’ Shows R&D Project Challenges

Apr 21, 2023 | Design, Development, News, Research & Development

Whilst SpaceX’s 1st Starship launch came to an explosive end high in the Texas sky, the brief flight wasn’t seen as a failure by the mission team.

The 394-foot-tall (120 meters) Starship, the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built, rose off its launch mount powered by its 33 first-stage Raptor engines, but the Starship’s upper stage did not separate from the first stage around three minutes after lift-off.

Instead, the vehicle began to lose altitude and tumble, before the flight termination system was activated, blowing the craft up.

The flight plan today was for the Super Heavy first-stage to come back to Earth in the Gulf of Mexico roughly eight minutes into the flight. The upper stage, meanwhile, was supposed to fire up its engines, taking Starship to a maximum altitude of about 145 miles (233 km) before a crash-landing in the Pacific Ocean.

SpaceX wasn’t expecting everything to work out, however; new rockets often fail on their first test flight, and Starship is far bolder and more complex than most launchers. (It has 33 first-stage engines and stands nearly 400 feet tall, after all.) Rather, today was all about gathering data and responding properly with regards the future R&D programme to whatever ended up happening, company representatives stressed.

“Now this was a development test. It’s a first test flight of Starship. And the goal is to gather the data and as we said, clear the pad and get ready to go again,” SpaceX Principal Integration Engineer John Insprucker said during the company’s livestream.

At least two experts in aerospace engineering and planetary science who spoke with Reuters agreed that the test flight delivered benefits.

“This is a classical SpaceX successful failure,” said Garrett Reisman, an astronautical engineering professor at the University of Southern California who is a former NASA astronaut and is also a senior adviser to SpaceX.

Reisman called the Starship test flight a hallmark of a SpaceX strategy that sets Musk’s company apart from traditional aerospace companies and even NASA by “this embracing of failure when the consequences of failure are low.”

Reisman said SpaceX saves more money in the long run and takes less time to identify and correct engineering flaws by taking more risks in the development process rather than keeping “a large team working for years and years and years trying to get it perfect before you even try it. I would say the timeline for transporting people (aboard Starship) is accelerated right now compared to what it was a couple of hours ago.”

Planetary scientist Tanya Harrison, a fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Outer Space Institute, said clearing the launch tower and ascending through a critical point known as maximum aerodynamic pressure were major feats on the first flight of such a large, complex launch system.

“It’s part of the testing process,” she said in an interview. “There are a lot of accidents that happen when you’re trying to design a new rocket. The fact that it launched at all made a lot of people really happy.”

She said the risks of a single flight test were small in comparison to the ambitious gains at stake.

“This is the biggest rocket that humanity has tried to build,” she said, adding that it is designed to carry “orders of magnitude” more cargo and people to and from deep space than any existing spacecraft.

The Super Heavy’s 33 Raptors are powered by liquid methane and liquid oxygen and generate about 16.5 million tons of thrust at lift-off. That’s nearly twice as much as the previous record holder, NASA’s Space Launch System mega rocket, which flew for the first-time last year on the Artemis 1 moon mission. This will enable the Starship vehicles to lift 165 tons (150 metric tons) to Earth orbit on each mission in its reusable configuration.

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