Why the explosion of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket was a ‘very successful failure,’ from a space policy guru who works for the Air Force

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via fortune.com

On April 20, 2023, a new SpaceX rocket called Starship exploded over the Gulf of Mexico three minutes into its first flight ever. SpaceX is calling the test launch a success, despite the fiery end result. As a space policy expert, I agree that the “rapid unscheduled disassembly” – the term SpaceX uses when its rockets explode – was a very successful failure.

This launch was the first fully integrated test of SpaceX’s new Starship. Starship is the most powerful rocket ever developed and is designed to be fully reusable. It is made of two different stages, or sections. The first stage, called Super Heavy, is a collection of 33 individual engines and provides more than twice the thrust of a Saturn V, the rocket that sent astronauts to the Moon in the 1960s and 1970s.

The first stage is designed to get the rocket to about 40 miles (65 kilometers) above Earth. Once Super Heavy’s job is done, it is supposed to separate from the rest of the craft and land safely back on the surface to be used again. At that point the second stage, called the Starship spacecraft, is supposed to ignite its own engines to carry the payload – whether people, satellites or anything else – into orbit.

While parts of Starship have been tested previously, the launch on April 20, 2023, was the first fully integrated test with the Starship spacecraft stacked on top of the Super Heavy rocket. If it had been successful, once the first stage was spent, it would have separated from the upper stage and crashed into the Gulf of Mexico. Starship would then have continued on, eventually crashing 155 miles (250 kilometers) off of Hawaii.

During the SpaceX livestream, the team stated that the primary goal of this mission was to get the rocket off the launch pad. It accomplished that goal and more. Starship flew for more than three minutes, passing through what engineers call “max Q” – the moment at which a rocket experiences the most physical stress from acceleration and air resistance.

According to SpaceX, a few things went wrong with the launch. First, multiple engines went out sometime before the point at which the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy rocket were supposed to separate from each other. The two stages were also unable to separate at the predetermined moment, and with the two stages stuck together, the rocket began to tumble end over end. It is still unclear what specifically caused this failure.

Starship is almost 400 feet (120 meters) tall and weighs 11 million pounds (4.9 million kilograms). An out-of-control rocket full of highly flammable fuel is a very dangerous object, so to prevent any harm, SpaceX engineers triggered the self-destruct mechanism and blew up the entire rocket over the Gulf of Mexico.

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