Podcast: Making Sense Of The SpaceX Starship Launch

SpaceX’s super heavy rocket exploded in mid-air during a test launch on April 20. Aviation Week editors talk about the aftermath of the test and the future of commercial and military space launches.

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Rush Transcript

Jen DiMascio:               Hi, and welcome to the Check 6 Podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the executive editor for Defense and Space. I'm here with Space Editor Irene Klotz, Pentagon Editor Brian Everstine and Space and Emerging Technologies Editor Garrett Reim. We're here to discuss the recent launch of SpaceX's Starship, which took place last week. It was going to be the first test of its super heavy Starship rocket. It did get off the ground, but broke up in midair and did not reach orbit.

                                    Irene, you were on the scene in Boca Chica. Tell us what happened out in Texas.

Irene Klotz:                   Thanks, Jen. They actually didn't allow us on Boca Chica, we were actually a little bit about five miles away on South Padre Island for this flight test. This rocket has twice the thrust of an SLS or a Saturn 5, and it certainly lived up to expectations with the launch. It was different than a shuttle being like a single stick rather than having the solid boosters, but it was very loud, very bright, very exciting to watch it launch. It's quite tall, a total of almost 400 feet with the super heavy first stage and the Starship upper stage. And the point of this flight, well, Elon Musk, the founder, CEO and chief engineer at SpaceX set very low expectations and said he really would be happy if they didn't blow up the launch tower. That would be a long time to fix that. So he got that wish. It did launch on the 20th at 8:33 local time AM.

                                    And the first part of the flight seemed to go pretty well, although it was clear from the get-go that not all of the 33 Raptor engines were firing. It's unknown what happened exactly, what caused what happened after that. But, the super heavy did not separate from the Starship upper stage. The way that the systems is designed, it's supposed to go into a flip maneuver and then the stages separate. And Starship has six Raptor engines that were to fire and continue the flight test, which in all would've lasted 90 minutes or so if it had been successful. Instead, the flip turned into this very slow kind of dramatic role, a tumble almost, and then the terminate flight termination systems were triggered and the whole thing came to a exciting conclusion about four minutes after liftoff.

                                    Since then, there's been reports of that the debris field caused not from the mid-air explosion, but actually from the launch itself was far wider and far more dramatic and potentially risky than expected. The FAA had expected the debris field based on SpaceX's early assessments to be about one square mile, and there was debris and sand and grit reported as far away as six miles in Port Isabel, and that is still kind of under investigation as to why that happened.

                                    I guess the last thing I would say just at this point is that Elon Musk on Twitter had said that they had planned to install a steel plate beneath the launch mount and that it was going to be a water cold steel plate to make it more robust. And they said they didn't have enough time to finish it. So based on how the vehicle formed during a static fire when 31 engines were fired, they thought they'd be okay with their concrete pad made out of a material called Fondag. But apparently that was overly optimistic, and the concrete... Elon put something out on Twitter a couple days ago, he said that it's still early in the analysis, but they think what happened is that the force of the engines when they throttled up may have shattered the concrete, not just eroded it. And he also mentioned that the engines were only at half thrust for the static test fire. So I guess therein lies the issue.

                                    There was a 25 foot hole excavated beneath the launch mount, and of course that's going to take a couple of months to repair. I would imagine they're going ahead and going to do the steel plate and water cooling. And as far as what SpaceX is going to have to do to show the rocket safety from the FAA's perspective, which is all about damage to people and property outside of what SpaceX owns and operates, that'll kind of be TBD.

Jen DiMascio:               Are you saying that the FAA doesn't really govern damage to the launchpad, that's the people who live beyond?

Irene Klotz:                   Right. The FAA's purview is public safety and public property. There was a report of one window being chattered in Port Isabel and there was pictures of people's cars like being covered with sand and grit and things, which that's not an unusual event at all during launches that there would be debris. At Kennedy Space Center in Florida they used to give us warnings about what could happen to our cars and things. But I think what was unexpected is that it was as far away as it was, and that might have been a factor of the winds, the weather, everything's very dynamic. It did not seem to cover South Padre Island and we were up like five miles away and I didn't notice any sand or grit or anything from it. But again, it's really contingent on which way the wind is blowing.

                                    But clearly they weren't really expecting the effects of the launch to have so much damage on the ground. But the launch tower itself, which would've been really a big setback if that had been melted or destroyed, if there had been an on pad accident. But I'm sure it's going to trigger a whole lot more analysis about just the impacts of launching this rocket.

Jen DiMascio:               Absolutely. You say 25 meter, or foot hole, either way it seems very large. The Falcon 9 really revolutionized space launch, it brought down the cost of launch, and a lot of people are drawing parallels as they talk about Starship. How do you think the broader space industry views the success of this super heavy rocket?

Irene Klotz:                   Well, for NASA, it's absolutely critical. Although the agency flew its own super heavy booster, the Space Launch System, back in November for the first time, and plans to use that for ferrying astronauts and some of the equipment and modules and things needed for the Artemis program. They are completely dependent on SpaceX to provide the transportation service from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon. NASA's bought the services from SpaceX and is looking for a second company for future flights, and they're looking at a variant of Starship to do that. So, it won't have people for the NASA portion, it won't have people launching on Starship from Boca Chica or Florida, but it will put people on Starship from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon and back. And the idea then that they would return to and from Earth on Orion capsules. So that's one.

                                    And then the military also has been looking at Starship for point to point transportation. The whole idea behind Starship is that it doesn't matter that it's such a massive system. Elon Musk has said that the goal is to get it to fly for somewhere between one and a few million dollars per launch. So that would really change everything for launch if it's successful. The company has really big dreams and they often have expectations that take a lot longer to come to fruition, but they've been very successful so far at really changing the game in this industry. So that's one aspect.

                                    And then there are some private missions that SpaceX is looking at doing with Starship, and they intend to use the Starship during its flight tests era to put the next generation's Starlink broadband communication systems into orbit.

Jen DiMascio:               Thanks, Irene. You mentioned that the US Space Force is looking at Starship for potential use, and Garrett, you wrote about that last week in Colorado Springs at the Space Symposium. What can you tell us about the Space Force's new plans for that?

Garrett Reim:                Yeah, the Space Systems Command of the US Space Force said they were watching Starship very closely. The Space Symposium was going on at the same time that SpaceX was attempting to launch Starship. One idea they have for Starship as well as Blue Origin's New Glenn launch vehicle is to potentially use these vehicles to move all of their launches, all their customers into LEO. So instead of launching to a specific orbit, you sort of use these huge launch vehicles to efficiently put spacecraft in LEO in sort of a staging area. And then you use a space tug or the spacecraft's own propulsion to move to their destination. And so the thinking being LEO's the sort of minimum altitude you need to get into space. So you do that and then you get max reusability out of the spacecraft while also being able to reach deeper into space. So they're watching that very closely.

                                    And as Irene alluded to earlier, they're also very interested in using Starship for the Rocket Cargo program. This is a program by the Air Force Research Laboratory that's looking at the possibility of transporting military cargo around the globe using rockets, SpaceX is a participant in that program. And for what Irene was saying earlier about bringing the cost down to a million dollars or a few million dollars per launch, Space Systems Command thinks that if you can do that and you're launching at about a daily rate, the cost of a ride on Starship becomes less expensive actually than a ride on a Boeing C-17 transport. And that opens up a lot of possibilities, especially for moving material to far-flung locations, especially across the Pacific Ocean. The Department of Defense talks about the tyranny of distance needing to resupply its troops in the Pacific, and if you could do a really fast hop with a Starship, that could open up a world of possibilities.

Jen DiMascio:               Thanks, Garrett. Brian, you've been looking at the Defense Department's budget picture. What does that look like more broadly than Starship, but for the next five years or so in terms of space launch?

Brian Everstine:             Yeah, so we're in everyone's favorite time of year here in Washington of budget posture hearings. And about a month ago, the Space Force rolled out its '24 request, which is a pretty big increase from prior years. And specifically in National Security space launch, they're asking for about a billion dollar jump just from '23 to '24, which would buy 10 launches in '24 compared to just three last year, or sorry, in '23 as enacted. And that would be a pace for a total about 40 over the next five years.

                                    And also last month, the Space Force put out his first draft request for proposal for the next phase of national security space launch. And this approach is trying to bring in some new providers, and they're calling it a two-lane approach. The first lane is to bring in some of these new providers by serving some more risk tolerant space vehicles that could head into orbits that are met by commercial launches. And this looks for procurement over '25 to 2034, kind of with a 5 year base order to prove themselves for some more options down the road. And then the second lane is kind of the more traditional national security space launch, looking for more established providers to go into orbits that can only really be met by national security space providers that have really proven themselves so far.

                                    And so the first draft request came out last month, and it, according to Space Systems Command, got a lot of input. I think they said a little over a thousand comments already. And so there'll be another follow up draft RFP next month before the final, by the end of the year.

Jen DiMascio:               Irene, you found that the discussion around that pretty eyeopening, did you not?

Irene Klotz:                   There was a presumption that Lane 1 was going to be for kind of medium lift, small-medium lift companies, Rocket Lab, Firefly, Virgin Orbit. We'll see what happens with them with their bankruptcy filing and look for new owners. But it turns out that the program actually is looking to use Lane 1 for some pretty big rockets too, including possibly Starship. The general who runs that program for the Space Force has assured access to Space program at its Space Symposium, Stephen Purdy, that competition would be open to Blue Origin, mentioned mentioned Blue Origin by name and SpaceX by name. And then a while ago we had reported about Boeing even looking at commercial versions of SLS.

                                    So I think what's going to be very interesting about this competition now is what missions the Space Force is going to put into the pool for the Lane 1 bids. And there's no certification requirements for those, the companies that vie for those missions do not have to be able to satisfy all the orbits that Space Force needs and the companies that win the more traditional Lane 2 awards, which are now held by SpaceX and ULA, United Launch Alliance, even those companies say those two companies won those contracts again, I'm sure there'll be others bidding for it, but say they did, they're welcome to bid on Lane 1 missions as well. So Lane 1 sounds a bit like a free for all, and then Lane 2 would look much more like how Space Force handles national security space launch today.

Jen DiMascio:               Well, that's really interesting and seems like the topic for a future podcast when they put out the final RFP or even a new draft. Unfortunately. That's all we have time for today. Listen again next week for another episode of Check 6, and don't miss any of them by subscribing to Check 6 in your podcast app of choice. Thanks very much for listening. Bye for now.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Irene Klotz

Irene Klotz is Senior Space Editor for Aviation Week, based in Cape Canaveral. Before joining Aviation Week in 2017, Irene spent 25 years as a wire service reporter covering human and robotic spaceflight, commercial space, astronomy, science and technology for Reuters and United Press International.

Garrett Reim

Based in the Seattle area, Garrett covers the space sector and advanced technologies that are shaping the future of aerospace and defense, including space startups, advanced air mobility and artificial intelligence.

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.


1 Comment
Why is nobody acknowledging that the pad damage caused by the Starship launch is a major engineering failure on the part of SpaceX?

Flame trenches and water suppression systems have been in use for literally 60 years and the last time that I know of where a launch just used a concrete pad was the Sheppard/Grissom Mercury-Redstone flights.

I don't know if it was ignorance, hubris or bad analysis but what does an unexpected 25' hole dug by Starship in its launch pad say about the engineering done in the rest of the program?