SpaceX Loses Starship/Super Heavy During Test

SpaceX’s Starship/Super Heavy stack suffered a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly (RUD) during the attempted orbital test on April 20, 2023. The issues included the test version of the Starship spacecraft failing to separate from the first stage rocket. Five of the 33 engines on the first stage also failed to fire during liftoff.

The launch attempt lasted only a couple of minutes. The stack reached an altitude of 18 miles.

If things had gone as planned, the first stage rocket would have returned to SpaceX’s test facility near Boca Chica, Texas. The spacecraft would have boosted itself into orbit and made nearly one full orbit around Earth before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

However, Elon Musk had previously given it maybe a 50/50 chance for success. Well before the launch, he tweeted, “Excitement guaranteed.” In his latest tweet, he called it a learning experience and anticipated another test in a few months.

Despite the loss of the Starship/Super Heavy stack during launch, SpaceX seemed equally confident that it could learn lessons from the mishap and increase its chances of nailing it the next time around.

Of course, this isn’t the first time SpaceX lost a Starship test model in a mishap. In early 2021, it lost four models in fiery mishaps during high-altitude testing before nailing it with the test model with the serial number SN15. SpaceX seemed to take it as part of the learning curve that comes with developing a new rocket and spacecraft despite occasional complaints from area residents and extra scrutiny from the FAA.

SpaceX seems generally capable at taking its failures in stride now that it’s not just another aerospace startup that’s one bad launch attempt away from bankruptcy. It even released this humorous compilation of failures titled “How Not to Land an Orbital Rocket Booster.” Now it makes landing its first stages boosters look easy. However, that wasn’t always the case.

Avid aerospace followers likewise refused to see the Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly — which looked like a big midair fireball — as a failure. Ars Technica’s Senior Space Editor, Eric Berger, saw it as a learning experience for a company that already has a couple more test models on standby. He said SpaceX can absorb such a dramatic loss of a rocket more easily than NASA can.

It didn’t hurt that the test model did not have a crew on board. That would have been an even messier business to deal with. From SpaceX’s perspective, these uncrewed tests merely give them a chance to fix the problems before they add the crew.

SpaceX hasn’t set a firm date for a second try for the orbital test with a different Starship test model — probably a smart move, since getting FAA approval for this first attempt took two years of wrestling with bureaucratic red tape, environmental reviews, and thousands of public comments. However, its employees barely blinked at the loss of its test rocket only a couple of minutes into the flight. They got some good data that will help them improve on future attempts.