SpaceX’s successful failure is a wake-up call for Starship’s timeline
SpaceX launched a fully integrated Starship launch vehicle for the first time on Thursday morning, a long-awaited and highly anticipated milestone in the vehicle development program.
The orbital test flight exceeded many expectations. The vehicle passed Max Q, the point at which the greatest aerodynamic pressure is exerted on the vehicle, and flew for nearly three minutes despite eight of its 33 rocket engines failing. The rocket reached an altitude of nearly 40 kilometers, the stage separation point, at which point the upper stage failed to separate from the propellant, causing an uncontrolled fall and a spectacular mid-air explosion.
Despite its fierce fate, the test was a success: SpaceX obtained tons of valuable data that will inform future Starship and Super Heavy prototypes. But for all the victories, the test was a stark reminder that Starship mission timelines need a reset.
Starship’s attempt at an orbital launch showed impressive progress, but also that the company still has a long way to go before achieving its super-heavy launch ambitions.
Beyond technical problems with the rocket itself, the sheer power of the Raptor engines on liftoff produced a massive crater beneath the orbital launch mount. It is unclear how much work will be required to repair the site, or if it can be salvaged. Either way, ground infrastructure issues could impose significant delays in subsequent tests, perhaps pushing the next one back by months.
SpaceX currently has three private human spaceflight missions on its Starship manifest. These include Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa’s dearMoon flight around the moon, billionaire Jared Isaacman’s third mission in the Polaris Program, and a separate lunar mission later this decade, for which businessman Dennis Tito and his wife Akiko purchased two. seating.
Of these, only dearMoon has a release date: later this year. This was optimistic at first when they announced it in 2021, but now it looks downright ridiculous.
SpaceX also won lucrative contracts with NASA, playing a crucial role in the Artemis lunar landing program. Artemis III will see astronauts launch into space inside an Orion atop a Space Launch System vehicle, after which they will encounter a Starship human landing system. From there they will travel to the lunar surface and back, but it is doubtful that that can be achieved as planned by 2025.
From time to time, SpaceX must fly at least one uncrewed Starship and land it on the lunar surface before NASA can deem the vehicle ready to carry astronauts. The Artemis III plan also involves SpaceX sending multiple reusable tankers and a propellant storage depot, with Starship refueling in orbit to ensure it can perform all the orbital burns necessary for the mission. All of these mission components are affected by delays in the main Starship test schedule.
Needless to say, the plan is enormously complicated. SpaceX will not just need to send Starship into orbit once, but over and over again. It will need to demonstrate a high degree of safety before NASA will allow astronauts to fly in it, demonstrate in-orbit refueling, and achieve reusability. At this rate, it’s more realistic to expect Artemis III to happen before 2030.
Does that mean NASA made the wrong decision in selecting SpaceX for its human landing system, or that Maezawa and Isaacman gambled on the wrong horse? You are welcome. But it does mean that all of us should temper our expectations about what the rest of this decade might hold for human spaceflight.
SpaceX’s Successful Failure Is A Wake-Up Call For Starship’s Timeline By Aria Alamalhodaei Originally Posted On TechCrunch