SpaceX’s explosive test flight achieved key milestones. But there is still a long way to go

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Mere moments after SpaceX’s Starship system — the most powerful rocket ever built — was lost in a test flight Saturday, a somewhat complicated narrative around the vehicle began to emerge.

The company immediately described the flight as a huge step in the right direction.

“What we did today will provide invaluable data to continue rapidly developing Starship,” SpaceX said Saturday in a statement. “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary.”

Yet the loss of another Super Heavy rocket booster and Starship spacecraft highlights just how far they have left to go in the development process, even as significant progress is made. It also raises questions about whether SpaceX can meet some key deadlines on the horizon.

Enabling humans to colonize the cosmos is the ultimate goal for this vehicle: SpaceX intends to use it to send people to the moon, Mars and beyond.

Crucially, the Starship spacecraft is also the vehicle that NASA selected to land US astronauts on the moon for the first time in five decades as part of its Artemis program. The space agency is racing against China to get the job done, vying to become the first to develop a permanent lunar outpost and set the precedent for deep-space settlements.

The first lunar mission that would make use of Starship — Artemis III — is slated for late 2025. In the aftermath of the first failed test flight in April, NASA officials expressed concern that the vehicle wouldn’t be ready in time.

But federal officials reacted favorably to Saturday’s test launch. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson offered SpaceX his congratulations and noted “test is an opportunity to learn — then fly again.”

And to be clear, Starship is still an essential part of NASA’s moon-landing plan. However, there are numerous daunting technological hurdles left to clear before those lunar ambitions becomes reality.

SpaceX's mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, November 18, 2023. - Eric Gay/AP
SpaceX's mega rocket Starship launches for a test flight from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, November 18, 2023. - Eric Gay/AP

What SpaceX has left to learn

Several key aspects of the second flight test went to plan: When the rocket took off from the SpaceX Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas, just after 8 a.m. ET, it was able to ignite all 33 of its engines and continue firing them as the Super Heavy booster — which gives the initial burst of power at liftoff — burned through most of its fuel.

The Starship spacecraft was then able to ignite its own engines and break away from the Super Heavy rocket booster to continue the mission. And the launchpad that served as the starting point managed to survive the sheer force of a rocket generating up to 16.7 million pounds of thrust (7,590 tonnes of force).

None of those milestones were met during the vehicle’s inaugural integrated test flight in April.

But other important steps originally slated for Saturday’s mission didn’t happen. The Super Heavy booster experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” — or an unintentional explosion — shortly after Starship separated from it. The mishap prevented SpaceX from testing the maneuvers that will be necessary to land and reuse the launch vehicle.

Similarly, the Starship capsule made it roughly 10 minutes into its flight, reaching an altitude considered to be beyond the edge of space — about 93 miles (150 kilometers) above Earth’s surface — but SpaceX was forced to terminate the mission when ground control lost its signal.

The vehicle did not spend as much time in space as the company had hoped, collecting mere moments of flight data rather than the hour-and-a-half’s worth mapped out for the mission. John Insprucker, principal integration engineer at SpaceX, said during the livestream that the company had to trigger Starship’s self-destruct feature after contact with the vehicle was lost.

That meant SpaceX wasn’t able to test out Starship’s landing technique either.

“The hardest part about this — or the part that will take the longest — is solving for safe (Starship) reentry and landing,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk acknowledged in October during the International Astronautical Congress in Baku, Azerbaijian.

SpaceX's first orbital Starship SN20 is shown here stacked atop its massive Super Heavy Booster 4 at the company's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on February 10, 2022. - Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
SpaceX's first orbital Starship SN20 is shown here stacked atop its massive Super Heavy Booster 4 at the company's Starbase facility near Boca Chica Village in South Texas on February 10, 2022. - Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Starship and orbital refueling

Being able to recover and rapidly reuse both the Starship spacecraft and the Super Heavy booster are essential to SpaceX’s long-term goals. Such capabilities would make the rocket system affordable and nimble enough to rapidly conduct all the launches necessary to get the vehicle to the moon.

In order to reach lunar orbit, Starship must be refueled while it’s parked near Earth. That’s because the massive spacecraft won’t have enough propellant left over to traverse the 238,900-mile (384,472-kilometer) void between our home planet and the moon after the initial launch process.

As of now, SpaceX acknowledges it has to launch more than a dozen Starship tankers to refuel one spacecraft destined for the moon, said Wayne Hale — the chair of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee — in a Saturday interview. That’s because of the Starship’s immense size: Just getting the vehicle into space requires it to burn through the majority of its fuel. And while Starship can hold up to 3 million (1,500 metric tons) of propellant, the spacecraft itself is only capable of hauling up to 55,000 pounds (250 metric tons) of extra cargo to orbit, according to data published by SpaceX and the FAA.

“So they’ve got to take that rocket that we saw demonstrated … and be able to fly 12, 15 more times for each lunar landing,” Hale told CNN. “That’s gonna be an impressive feat. They’ve got to learn how to do that … where it’s successful and reliable every time, and they’ve got to do that in a very short period of time.”

Starship and the Artemis timeline

With many milestones left to hit, it’s clear that even if the next Starship test flight is wholly successful, a moon landing will remain on the distant horizon.

Musk previously acknowledged in 2020 that he hopes SpaceX will launch “hundreds of missions” with satellites before attempting a flight with crew. SpaceX also must build and test the versions of Starship that will serve as refueling tankers. A lander must be outfitted with life support equipment. And NASA will require Starship to make an uncrewed test landing on the moon before allowing its astronauts on board.

Still, SpaceX emphasized that explosive failures can be integral to its development process, which embraces fiery mishaps in the early stages of designing a rocket in order to learn how to build a better rocket faster than if the company solely relied on ground tests.

Though SpaceX’s failed test flights garner plenty of critics, it does not mean that the company is moving more slowly or costing more money than if NASA had attempted to develop a lunar lander itself.

All told, NASA will pay SpaceX about $4 billion for two lunar landings. (The company has already invested more than $3 billion in developing its South Texas launch facility and the Starship Super Heavy launch system since 2014, according to an FAA court filing dated May 19.)

NASA Astronaut Christina Hammock Koch speaks during a Washington media gathering on May 18, 2023, as NASA astronauts Victor Glover and Reid Wiseman and CSA (Canadian Space Agency) astronaut Jeremy Hansen look on. Wiseman, Glover, Hammock Koch, and Hansen, are expected to fly around the moon on NASA's Artemis II flight test, slated for 2024. - Bill Ingalls/NASA

For comparison, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft that NASA developed for the Artemis program have together cost more than $44 billion since 2006, according to data aggregated by the nonprofit Planetary Society. That rocket system had its first flight test last year. Under NASA’s current plans, SLS and Orion would transport astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit, while Starship would complete the final leg of the journey, ferrying them from the Orion spacecraft to the moon’s surface.

But Hale noted that SpaceX doesn’t use the same development approach as NASA. The space agency spends years on careful design and rigorous ground testing — all but guaranteeing success on the first flight. In contrast, SpaceX wants to put early prototypes in the air, accepting that they may explode but will likely provide valuable information for future testing.

“This is a different paradigm,” Hale said of Starship development. “The government — when you’re working with the taxpayers’ dollars — you really want to be careful and make sure you succeed.

“Whereas (SpaceX) is a private company,” Hale added. “Yes, they’re doing this work in support of the government, but their methodology is quite different. And I think you could be successful either way. But, this way certainly has its exciting moments.”

Another lunar lander: Starship vs. Blue Moon

Starship can also be compared with Blue Moon, another lunar lander under development by the Jeff Bezos-owned space company Blue Origin. NASA selected Blue Moon as an alternative lunar lander for future Artemis missions.

NASA expects to pay the company $3.4 billion for a single crewed lunar landing — the Artemis V mission currently slated for 2028 — with Blue Origin investing at least that much of its own money.

Lakiesha Hawkins, NASA’s assistant deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Moon to Mars program, said at its advisory council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee meeting last week that Blue Origin’s lunar lander won’t necessarily be simpler than SpaceX’s behemoth rocket and spacecraft system.

“Both of those providers have their challenges,” Hawkins said, referring to SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander. “And they are equally — from my perspective — complex.”

Blue Origin declined to comment on where Blue Moon stands in the development process.

The companies are taking very different approaches in their moon landing strategies, but experts say both SpaceX and Blue Origin will be distinct from their predecessor in some key ways.

Why NASA isn’t just repeating Apollo

Hale, the committee chair, said it can be difficult for members of the public to wrap their heads around why all of these projects are costing so much development time and money if NASA already knows how to put humans on the moon.

Why not just repeat the same thing NASA did during the Apollo program?

“People ask what was wrong with Apollo,” Hale said during the committee meeting last week. “The thing that was wrong with Apollo was it ended.”

NASA and SpaceX are aiming to develop vehicles that don’t just go to the moon once. Apollo already accomplished the “flags and footprints” missions, Hale noted.

Now, the space agency is looking to develop rockets and spacecraft that can push exploration further. NASA aims to establish a permanent moon base and eventually reach Mars in a cost-effective manner.

The Apollo 11 mission, the first manned lunar mission, launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida via the Saturn V launch vehicle on July 16, 1969 and safely returned to Earth on July 24, 1969. Aboard the spacecraft were astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, commander; Michael Collins, command module pilot; and Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot. - NASA

“When you put those sustainable reusability requirements on the program — and the fact that it’s leading on to go to Mars — you do buy into perhaps a more complicated architecture than just repeating Apollo,” Hale said.

And, even as he acknowledged Starship has a long way to go, he added, “I think they made a big step forward.”

What’s next for Starship

Musk has already said the Super Heavy booster and Starship spacecraft will likely be ready for a third test flight in “3 to 4 weeks,” according to a Sunday post on social media, adding, “There are three ships in final production.”

CNN noted that four Starship spacecraft and at least two Super Heavy boosters are visible from public roadways near SpaceX’s facility in South Texas.

SpaceX's Starship rocket prototypes are seen at the SpaceX Starbase in Brownsville, Texas, on August 19, 2023. - Veronica Cardenas/Reuters
SpaceX's Starship rocket prototypes are seen at the SpaceX Starbase in Brownsville, Texas, on August 19, 2023. - Veronica Cardenas/Reuters

It’s not clear, however, how long it will take SpaceX engineers to review the data gathered during Saturday’s flight and implement the necessary changes. And Musk is known to publicize unmet deadlines.

Also unclear is whether SpaceX will have the necessary regulatory approvals to launch another test flight in just a few weeks. The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial rocket launches, indicated its intentions to open a standard mishap investigation into Saturday’s test flight. After the first test flight in April, a similar investigation took over four months to complete.

Once the investigation is closed, the federal agency will then likely need to complete a safety review of SpaceX’s plans for a third launch before it will issue another permit. It’s not clear how long that process might take.

The FAA did not respond to a request for comment.

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