Update on 3/30/21: The company’s fourth attempt also ended in catastrophic failure.
Update on 3/4/21: On 3/3/21, Starship number SN10 exploded on the ground after landing. That marked the third consecutive explosion of a SpaceX Starship rocket. The story below, first published on 2/17, outlines the company’s controversial approach with the large space vehicles.
In February, a gleaming, 15-story rocket exploded in a massive fireball over a coastal testing facility near Brownsville, Texas. A video of the fiery crash, broadcast via YouTube by SpaceX, looked like something out of a Michael Bay blockbuster.
To many observers, the crash of the SN9 Starship rocket may have seemed like a significant setback for SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and his team of pioneering engineers who hope someday to take people to Mars. But to SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker, the crash was all in a day’s work. “We had, again, another great flight up,” Insprucker said on the video following the crash. “We’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit.”
Work on that landing, indeed. Here’s what to know about that fiery event, a previous one in December, an upcoming attempt (update on March 4: that one exploded too), and why the FAA is involved.
What happened to SpaceX’s Starships SN8 and SN9
Sending rockets to space is hard. Landing them back on earth intact so they can be reused is even harder. NASA has known this for decades, but now we are in a new era of space travel, with private companies like SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and other private firms who are racing to open up space to the public in a way that only science fiction movies could imagine just a quarter-century ago.
The February 2 crash came less than three months after another Starship rocket, the SN8 (the SN stands for Serial Number), also exploded on December 9, 2020, at SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility near Brownsville, Texas. Though spectacular and seemingly dangerous, both explosions were not entirely unexpected. (It’s worth noting that both were uncrewed tests, and no one was hurt.)
In a tweet on November 24 before the SN8 launch, Elon Musk said that a “lot of things need to go right,” and gave the possibility of total success a “1/3 chance.” Despite the SN8 crash, SpaceX declared afterward that the flight represented an “awesome test,” and added, “Congratulations, Starship team!” In a tweet following the crash, Musk said the explosion was caused by low fuel tank pressure.
The SpaceX Starship program began in 2016 with the goal of launching cargo and as many as 100 people at a time on missions to the moon and eventually to Mars. During its early development stages, Musk said that the Starship vehicle could potentially launch people into space by 2020, but he has since backtracked on that statement, saying that there are likely “hundreds of missions,” still ahead before that happens.
The Starship rocket is actually the second stage of a two-part reusable launch system. When fully operational, the Starship carries payload and passengers and is lifted into space using a first stage, or booster rocket, called the Super Heavy. The booster is paired with the Starship to help the vehicle leave Earth. Neither should be confused with the company’s tried-and-true Falcon 9, which has proven capable of landing reliably back on earth (usually). The Falcon 9 also does not execute a belly-flop maneuver like the Starships do.
Why the FAA is involved following the Starship explosions
As much as Musk and his SpaceX team would like to frame the thunderous destruction of their spacecraft as a routine part of the arduous process of sending people to space, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has stepped in, raising concerns about how the rocket company is managing its launches and addressing public safety concerns.
The Verge reported in late January that the December launch “violated the terms” of the company’s FAA test license; an investigation of the incident included “a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making, and process discipline,” an FAA spokesperson told Popular Science.
The regulatory scrutiny prompted an angry reply on Twitter by Musk, who expressed his frustration with the agency’s critique: “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” tweeted Musk. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
The launch also led some space insiders to call into question SpaceX’s apparent impulsiveness. “I am very critical of SpaceX after it demonstrated that it had effectively become a ‘law unto itself’ when it launched the SN8 test flight,” says David Todd, an analyst at Seradata, a UK-based firm that tracks rocket launches and satellites.
As a result of the FAA scrutiny, the launch of the SN9, which was scheduled for launch on January 28, was delayed for about a week after the agency requested additional information about the vehicle and flight plan before giving final approval.
“While we recognize the importance of moving quickly to foster growth and innovation in commercial space, the FAA will not compromise its responsibility to protect public safety,” FAA spokesperson Steve Kulm told The Verge. “We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements.”
The agency ultimately gave the go-ahead, expressing satisfaction that SpaceX had taken the necessary steps to ensure public safety, and the launch of the SN9 proceeded on February 2.
After a successful initial launch, the stainless-steel Starship SN9 reached an altitude of 6.2 miles, as planned, but when one engine failed to ignite as it descended, the craft could not right itself and exploded on the ground.
The FAA has opened a second probe into the company’s launch practices following SN9. An FAA spokesperson said via email: “A mishap investigation is designed to further enhance public safety, not to place blame. It seeks to determine the root cause and identify corrective actions to avoid a similar mishap.”
Again, SpaceX seemed to take the explosion in stride, assuming a seemingly nonchalant attitude towards the crash. In an interview on the Joe Rogan podcast on February 11, Musk said, “This is a test program. We expect it to explode. It’s weird if it doesn’t explode, frankly. If you want to get payload to orbit, you have to run things close to the edge.”
As the space company readies for the launch of the SN10 (update on March 4: it exploded), Musk and his team are projecting a higher possibility of success, perhaps as high as 60 percent. But the company is also hoping to reframe expectations: “These test flights are all about improving our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the moon, and travel to Mars and beyond,” SpaceX said on the Starship website.
All told, SpaceX’s collaboration with NASA is a remarkable development in the public-private partnership that has captured the public’s imagination and refueled an interest in human space travel not seen since the early Space Shuttle missions. But the recent explosions in many ways highlight a cultural divide in an arena—space—that has traditionally been the domain of government agencies. Some experts suggest that the staid government approach may be outdated and in need of a more modern perspective.
“NASA tries to model everything to the nth degree whereas SpaceX works on the basis of ‘test it until it breaks,’” says Todd.
Todd said the SpaceX “test-to-destruction” approach has the advantage of getting a space launch system operational relatively quickly, “however, it may mean that launch failures happen more often—especially on early flights—when compared to using NASA’s more detailed modeling approach.”
He suggests that eventually these “teething problems” will eventually be ironed out, but the tension between the FAA and SpaceX will likely continue into the foreseeable future.
This story was first published on February 17, 2021. We’ve updated it since that time.