Today, April 20th, 2023, SpaceX‘s Starship spacecraft completed its first flight. The most powerful rocket ever built put on a spectacle during its debut in space. With a powerful roar, the mega-rocket flew into space today from SpaceX’s marine base on the beach at Boca Chica, on the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, at 9:33 a.m. EDT.

It was an incredible and surreal sight. The 120-meter-tall spacecraft rose from the orbital launch support (OLP) of Starbase, propelled by its 33 Raptor first-stage engines (Booster 7). However, the journey into space didn’t last long. The ship’s upper stage, 50 meters tall, was supposed to separate from the first stage about three minutes after liftoff, but it never happened. The two vehicles remained connected and began to fall apart, with an intentional explosion (RUD) ordered from the ground.

What happened?

“The vehicle lost multiple engines during flight, losing altitude and began to fall. Flight termination system was commanded both on the booster and the ship” SpaceX wrote in an update (ref.). The gigantic Starship, during its first flight, still reached an altitude of 39 kilometers, according to SpaceX’s launch webcast data.

“Getting that high is incredible” said Kate Tice of SpaceX during the webcast. “Everything that happened after clearing the tower was just icing on the cake”. Today’s flight plan called for the Booster to return to the Gulf of Mexico after about eight minutes of flight. Meanwhile, the upper stage would have ignited its six Raptors to head into orbit on a partial planned trip around Earth.

The goal was to bring the spacecraft to a maximum altitude of about 233 km, then bring it back into the Earth’s atmosphere for a fireproof test landing. It would all end with a hard splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, not far from the Hawaiian Ocean, 90 minutes after liftoff.

Failure is a step towards success

However, SpaceX did not expect everything to work. New rockets often fail during their first test flight, and Starship is much bolder than most launchers. Today’s purpose was to collect data and respond adequately to anything that happened, company representatives emphasized.

“This was a development test. It’s a first test flight of Starship. The goal is to collect data and, as we said, clear the pad and get ready to fly again” said John Insprucker, Principal Integration Engineer at SpaceX. “You never know exactly what will happen. But as promised, excitement is guaranteed. And Starship gave us a rather spectacular conclusion to what was truly an incredible test”.

What will happen now? New Starship flights will likely occur fairly soon. The company has more Starship vehicles in production at Starbase. The goal is to fly them practically as soon as they’re ready. This is in line with Musk‘s philosophy, which prioritizes progress made from flight tests, especially in failed ones.

Stefano Gallotta
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