SpaceX aborted its already long-delayed orbital test flight of the Starship/Super Heavy stack due to an issue with the pressurization system. The abort was announced at T minus nine minutes and the launch team used the remaining time to run through a “wet rehearsal” of the planned test.
According to Elon Musk’s Twitter account, a stuck valve triggered the decision to abort.
Even before the abort, Musk seemed to think there was a high chance that the orbital test could end explosively. SpaceX could go for a second launch attempt in as little as 48 hours. Recycling procedures include draining off the supercooled fuel, giving the rocket a closer inspection, and potentially fixing the issues that led to the abort.
“Just don’t blow up the pad,” he said in a pre-launch Twitter Spaces event.
At least he didn’t think it would be boring.
Musk had taken a similar attitude before the first Falcon Heavy launch in 2018, which he gave a 50% chance of success. Publicly, he tries to manage expectations. More privately? Employees at his companies have said that he can be in a bad mood after a failed rocket test.
The Falcon Heavy launch succeeded, but it wouldn’t have been the first time he saw a launch go bad fast. There had been a time when SpaceX was nearly bankrupt partly due to a string of rocket failures.
Luckily, it turned things around and has conducted 24 launches so far in 2023. The most recent launch was the Transporter-7 rideshare mission, which launched 51 small satellites for a variety of organizations.
Issues that SpaceX had to deal with included a boat that strayed into the exclusion zone. Starbase is near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, which requires it to maintain an offshore area that is free of boats in case debris from a failed rocket launch falls into the Gulf.
The orbital test was to launch from its “Starbase” launch facility near Boca Chica, Texas. The Starship spacecraft would have made nearly one complete orbit and splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.
The Super Heavy rocket can produce up to 16.5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, which will make it the most powerful rocket in existence when it becomes operational. The rocket used by NASA for the Artemis Program produces a little more than half the Super Heavy’s thrust.
The Super Heavy’s intense thrust will make it suitable for a variety of purposes ranging from rapidly sending larger cargoes to anywhere on Earth to sending cargo and crews to Mars. SpaceX intends to make both stages of the Super Heavy reusable, which will make missions using Starship/Super Heavy less expensive and more sustainable.
SpaceX already reuses the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket. Some Falcon 9 first stage boosters have flown more than ten times. Most of its fleet of Cargo Dragons and Crew Dragons have also flown more than once.
SpaceX has not scheduled a time or date for its second attempt to launch the Starship/Super Heavy stack on its orbital test flight.