SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave a comprehensive review of the debut launch of the Starship rocket, which took place on April 20, 2023.
Speaking for an hour during a Twitter Spaces event, Musk shared his thoughts on the flight, what went wrong, and the plan for the future. In this article, we will summarize Musk’s talk and provide an overview of SpaceX’s plans for the Starship Program.
Musk said the flight slightly exceeded his expectations, with only minor damage to the launch site. He expects Starship to fly again in as little as two or three months. However, Musk acknowledged that there were a few issues that need to be addressed before the next flight.
Starship liftoff in slow motion pic.twitter.com/KqHjqwP88Z— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 22, 2023
During the launch, three engines did not reach full thrust and were terminated by the flight software. However, this did not affect the rocket’s overall performance: 30 of the Super Heavy first stage’s 33 engines in good condition is the minimum allowable number for liftoff.
Moreover, he was skeptical that the three engines were affected by the gravel and concrete debris that was kicked up by the immense thrust of the rocket during its gradual liftoff from the launch pad.
At T-plus 27 seconds, engine 19 lost communications, concurrent with some kind of “energetic event”, Musk said. This also liberated the outer heat shield from four nearby engines. SpaceX engineers are still evaluating what caused this “energetic event”.
Flight Termination System
At T-plus 85 seconds, the rocket started to lose its thrust vector control, which then led to the initiation of the flight termination system (AFTS). This system starts a rocket’s self-destruction to prevent it from going off course and causing harm.
There was about a 40-second delay between the system’s initiation and the rocket breaking apart. Musk said the problem could be solved with a longer detonation cord, but he acknowledged that working through this issue with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may take some time.
Strengthening the Launch Site
Musk also addressed the damage observed at the launch site, including a large hole created by the rocket’s thrust. Musk plans to “put down a lot of steel” to create a “mega-steel pancake” that would provide strength below the rocket and a regenerative cooling system by pumping water upward to dampen exhaust from the rocket’s 33 engines.
Liftoff from Starbase pic.twitter.com/rgpc2XO7Z9— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 20, 2023
This approach should reduce damage to the launch site and eliminate the propagation of concrete bits and dust that were observed during the initial test flight last month.
Future Plans: when launch?
Musk discussed the plans for the Starship program, which includes using electric motors to steer the engines instead of hydraulic actuators. This would ensure that the rocket can continue to steer itself, even with multiple engine failures.
Musk said that Booster 9 is the company’s next-in-line rocket, and it is a lot easier to use than previous models. The longest lead item is requalifying the flight termination system, which is necessary before proceeding with the next flight.
Musk believes that Starship will fly again in “two or three months“, and he has identified several areas that need improvement before the next launch.