SpaceX’s Starship: A Setback on the Road to Mars Colonization
Last week, SpaceX made headlines as it launched the Starship, the world's tallest and most powerful rocket. This launch marked the first test flight of the full-scale Starship rocket, which consists of a huge first-stage booster called Super Heavy and a 165-foot-tall upper-stage spacecraft known as Starship. Both elements are designed to be fully and rapidly reusable, a breakthrough that SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk thinks will make Mars colonization economically feasible. However, during the vehicle's first flight test, multiple engine failures caused it to lose altitude and tumble, leading to the deployment of the Automated Flight Termination System, which destroyed the launch vehicle.
Even though there was a setback, CEO Elon Musk maintained a positive attitude on Twitter and focused on the next attempt which will take place in a few months. If it happens, success will be a significant achievement for SpaceX, as they have already revolutionized the space industry by launching their smaller Falcon 9 rocket affordably and frequently. Starship is expected to carry at least 100 tons to low-Earth orbit, on par with the Saturn V rocket that took people to the Moon during NASA's Apollo program. Musk's goal is to have Starship take flight three times per day at a cost of only $1 million per launch.
However, until the full public safety and environmental consequences of Starship's launch are better understood, the FAA has grounded the rocket. SpaceX will have to go back to the drawing board to re-build, make adjustments, and repair some seriously damaged launch infrastructure. The blast from the Starship's engines sent a shower of debris across the launch site, damaging tanks and other equipment. The launch of the world's largest rocket also left a large crater in the concrete under the circular launch mount.
It's clear from this episode that SpaceX will need to fully install its “massive water-cooled steel plate,” as Musk describes it, prior to the next Starship launch, and possibly implement other suppression systems. NASA has a flame trench and water deluge system for launching large rockets at Kennedy Space Center. That SpaceX chose to launch Starship without some kind of suppression system was clearly a big mistake—one that left the launch pad damaged and the local community having to clean up SpaceX's mess.
Despite these challenges, Musk remains optimistic and has vowed to launch Starship again in one to two months once SpaceX engineers have pored over all the data from the first attempt. “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 multi-planetary,” the company wrote on Twitter. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson also congratulated SpaceX on the launch, saying “Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward. Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test — and beyond.”
Touted to be “the biggest rocket ever,” Starship is a fully reusable transportation system aimed at carrying crew and cargo to “Earth's orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond.” The Super Heavy rocket of Starship generates 17 million pounds of thrust, which is twice the amount produced by NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), the second most powerful launcher. The fuel source for its propulsion is a combination of cooled liquid methane and liquid oxygen. Reaching an impressive altitude of 394 feet, it stands out as remarkably tall.
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