What next? SpaceX provides update after dramatic Starship explosion

"Success comes from what we learn," SpaceX wrote shortly after Starship exploded.
Chris Young
Starship shortly after launch.
Starship shortly after launch.

SpaceX / Twitter 

Yesterday really happened.

SpaxeX's fully-stacked Starship and Super Heavy launch system took to the skies for the first time from South Texas on April 20, 08:33 local time. The 394-foot-tall (120 meters) Starship — roughly the size of a 40-story building — made a slow climb off the launch pad. And then it kept climbing.

It didn't reach orbit though, as the launch system started to spiral roughly three minutes after launch before exploding into a ball of flames. SpaceX has since provided an update on the problems that led to the explosion, as well as a whole host of impressive imagery.

The world's most powerful rocket takes flight

SpaceX confirmed, via an update on its website, that Starship climbed to an apogee of ~39 km over the Gulf of Mexico. This is "the highest of any Starship to date," the private space firm explained. Though yesterday's mission was the first flight test of a fully integrated Starship and Super Heavy, SpaceX has performed numerous suborbital flight tests on the Starship upper stage.

Despite the fiery demise of Starship, SpaceX stresses that yesterday's mission was a success, very much in keeping with its fail fast, learn fast mantra. The explosion was, after all, met with rapturous applause by SpaceX's ground team, rather than the deafening silence that usually follows a catastrophic launch failure.

"With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today that will help us improve on future flights of Starship," the company wrote.

What next? SpaceX provides update after dramatic Starship explosion
Starship soaring to the skies.

Though we don't know the exact date of SpaceX's next Starship orbital flight attempt, SpaceX has at least two more Starship rockets ready to go. Shortly after yesterday's launch, CEO Elon Musk wrote the following: "Congrats SpaceX team on an exciting test launch of Starship! Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months."

Until that time, SpaceX will analyze the massive amounts of data it will have collected from the launch of Starship. Space enthusiasts, meanwhile, have a load of impressive images of Starship, sporting 5,000 metric tons of liquid oxygen and methane propellant, slowly climbing into the sky.

What next for SpaceX's Starship program?

Though Starship's flight test fireball doesn't mean failure, it does raise some concerns.

In its update, SpaceX explained that Starship "experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble. The flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and ship." Essentially, SpaceX hit the self-destruct button to avoid Starship causing any further damage on the ground.

We say further, because, as Ars Technica reports, post-launch imagery showed a huge crater underneath the Orbital Launch Mount, caused by the power of Starship's Raptor engines. SpaceX designed Starship to be the world's most powerful launch system, as well as the first fully reusable rocket. In order to enable successive launches, it will have to find a solution — possibly in the form of a flame trench — to the infrastructure damage caused by Starship on its first orbital launch attempt.

What next? SpaceX provides update after dramatic Starship explosion
Several of Starship's Raptor engines didn't fire up.

As for SpaceX's Raptor engines, several of the company's proprietary next-gen engines didn't fire up, leading to Starship losing control. The company will most definitely pour over the wealth of data it has collected to help it improve Raptor's reliability.

Though Elon Musk's divisive nature led some to revel in the explosion of Starship, SpaceX's most important customer seemed happy with the launch. "Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk because with great risk comes great reward," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement after the test flight. "Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test—and beyond."

Starship could make humanity a multi-planetary species, and its journey has only just begun.

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