El Mo Drax’s Supersonic Rocket Ship Blowed Up

Not exactly breaking news at this point, but the SpaceX Starship blew up after a successful launch this morning. Not entirely clear if it was inherent in the vehicle, or if it was intentionally taken out by SpaceX as it was malfunctioning. Either way, a disaster. From the New York Times:

“SpaceX’s Starship rocket exploded on Thursday, minutes after lifting off from a launchpad in South Texas. The spacecraft, the most powerful ever to launch, failed to reach orbit, but it was not a total failure for the private spaceflight company.

Before the launch, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, had tamped down expectations, saying it might take several tries before Starship succeeds at this test flight, which was to reach speeds fast enough to enter orbit before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.”

As much as I dislike Musk, and trust me I have likely been doing so longer than most anybody, the SpaceX program is part and parcel of NASA now, and getting into, and out of, space is progress for the US and humanity. It really is “rocket science”, and it is not easy. There have always been things like this in the human approach to space. But no lives were lost this morning, and much was probably learned.

You could tell there was something wrong though. There was film of the bottom of the giant rocket, and there were several of the 33 engine pods that were clearly not firing. Was that the catastrophic failure, or was there really a failure to separate stages? The news people do not seem to know, and neither do I.

The SpaceX term has been “rapid unscheduled disassembly”. Orwellian almost, but I guess. In short, it blowed up, by whatever mechanism.

Forget El Mo on this one, SpaceX is effectively part of the government now, and their effort should be supported.

All thanks to Moonraker by Ian Fleming and Supersonic Rocket Ship by Ray Davies and the Kinks.

159 replies
  1. Troutwaxer says:

    I wouldn’t describe this as a tragedy or disaster. This was the testing of a prototype, which does sometimes result in failure or in some cases, limited success. The phrase “rapid unscheduled disassembly” goes back at least to the 1980’s (and possibly as far back as 1965.) I watched the 5 minutes in which the rocket blew up and it looks like there was a problem with the second stage separation, and that’s one of the hard places where you’d expect something bad to occur. In terms of rocket development this is a minor-to-medium-sized setback of the sort which SpaceX regularly allows for and characterizing it as a disaster is… not helpful.


    But agreed on one point: Elon Musk certainly does suck. He’s a piss-poor human being, and nobody deserves to watch a multi-million-dollar experiment blow itself to smithereens than him!

    • ToldainDarkwater says:

      [I realized that “Toldain” is only 7 characters, so I have changed to “ToldainDarkwater”. Hope that’s ok]

      I agree completely. As terrible as Musk is at interpersonal things, he gets that the path to success is paved with failures, which is, if you are an engineer, a very positive quality in your leadership. Very positive.

      Of course, lots of people who are really mad at him over Twitter are going to celebrate his failure. I’m not really mad at him over Twitter, because I never used Twitter in the first place, so meh.

      But this issue with the big rocket is no reason to predict failure of the overall program.

      [Thanks for updating your username to meet the 8 letter minimum. /~Rayne]

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        This thread is not about the failure of “the total program.” And your assessment of what Musk gets and uses as a priority in making executive decisions doesn’t seem to hold water.

        Among the first people he fired at Tesla when he started having trouble were his automotive and manufacturing engineers. Too expensive. But they were the ones with the know-how that might have gotten him out of that trouble sooner or at less cost.

        Elon values Elon, not much else.

        • Kenster42 says:

          Uhhhh, you mean Tesla, the company the Elon joined in 2004 and had $20M in original funding that now, 19 years later, has a $511B market cap? You mean that Tesla? Seriously, dude, you might want to look at Musk a little more objectively.

          • bmaz says:

            You mean the Tesla that Musk claims credit for forming, when he didn’t, and constantly was run like a Ponzi scheme based on bizarre bookkeeping, pre sales and bogus hype? That Tesla?

          • Sloth Sloman says:

            Sure, let’s make sure everyone knows he has a Bachelor’s degree in economics and has nothing to do with the operational successes of SpaceX and Tesla. He is not an engineer in any sense of the word. He has no science or coding background. He is a fraud and spent $44 billion to try and obtain the popularity he never had in high school.

            Let’s also make sure we know that Tesla is literally killing people as a part of software development.

            Let’s also make sure everyone knows that his Boring Company is essentially a scam company attempting to extract taxpayer dollars for unfinished projects.

            Let’s also make sure everyone knows that while space flight is certainly a triumph of human engineering and planning, it’s also a tremendous waste of energy (as Rapier here noted in a comment below) and capital that could be used to solve real human problems that still exist on THIS planet.

            • Tech Support says:

              The part that was especially laughable for me was the news about him sending his Tesla software guys over to do a “code review” at Twitter. Putting aside the misuse of a publicly traded company’s resources, there’s such a vast gulf between embedded systems and full stack web development that he might have also asked Tesla’s mechanical engineers to review the architectural blueprints of Twitter HQ.

          • Rayne says:

            LOL you’re confusing market cap for enterprise value, for starters, and even that’s in question since we still don’t know what the downsides are from Musk’s legal exposures wrt faking autonomous driving and spying on Tesla owners.

            After the bell on April 19, Tesla announced Q1 results that sorely disappointed even its ardent Wall Street fans. Five price reductions so far this year, designed to bolster demand, lowered average sales prices so markedly that operating margins fell from over 19% a year ago to 11.4%. All told, earnings cratered by almost one-fourth. The battery-on-the-blink performance was far from the fabulous growth story that Elon Musk’s long been selling investors. On the news, no fewer than seven analysts pared their price targets for the shares. At midday on April 20, Tesla’s stock had fallen 9.3% to $164.40, erasing $58 billion in market cap, an amount equal to more than one-third the valuation of Netflix.

            But for one leading analyst, the selloff isn’t remotely big enough to bring the EV king’s shares in line with its fundamentals. David Trainer, founder and CEO of investment research firm New Constructs, believes that using the most realistic projections for the likes of sales and earnings, Tesla’s worth something like $28 a share or one-sixth its current price—which by the way, is down 60% from its peak of $415 reached in late 2021. “Tesla remains hugely overvalued,” Trainer told Fortune, pointing to a $517 market cap that still amounts to twice the combined valuations of Toyota and Volkswagen.

            Yahoo News source, emphasis mine; Toyota and VW combined have sold 596,948 cars through end of March vs. Tesla’s 170,002. It’s still about the number of cars sold since Tesla’s other products aren’t yet more than a blip in its revenues.

            Don’t get me started on what Musk has spent promoting Tesla — which may include his quixotic purchase of Twitter — versus GM and Ford which spent something around $2 billion on advertising.

            Don’t be a Musk fanboi here without some hard data and harder facts.

      • wasD4v1d says:

        The NASA launchpads are better engineered, and given that Musk blew up his own launchpad (thus he failed his only stated objective), it’s likely that he will be forced by NASA into making his MoonShips launch – if they ever do again – with flame trenches, hold downs, and a water deluge. There will likely be significant re-engineering of the Canaveral site as well. This launch was a Twitteresque fustercluck that proves Musk has been lucky, not brilliant.

  2. Bill B(Not Barr) says:

    I want to know if the explosion was unplanned or triggered by the range officer.

    The first stage may/probably was unbalanced from the non-firing thrusters, but it looks like the stages failed to separate.

    Looking forward to the report.

    • boatgeek says:

      The explosion was triggered by range safety systems. That might have been the range safety officer pushing the big red button, or it may have been automated systems seeing that the rocket was headed off course. Usually, the big red button is a backup to automated systems.

    • wasD4v1d says:

      Circumstances suggest a failure of all automatic systems – it was late from T minus 6, didn’t reach altitude on time or at speed, it still had fuel in the tank (which should have then been empty) with 20% of its engines out, failed to separate, and tumbled end over end several times. I very much doubt its automatic safety system worked any better under anomalous conditions than a Tesla. Human hands on the wheel are still required.

  3. John Forde says:

    BMAZ, I can attest to your having been amongst earliest adopters of the “Elmo has corrosive features” meme.
    Great article.
    I will now rapidly disassemble as has been pre-ordained in my clandestine schedule.

  4. NickBarnes says:

    Not a disaster, or even a setback. Perfectly normal part of SpaceX’s “hardware-rich development program”. By “failing fast, failing early”, they have built Falcon 9: the first orbital rocket with a wholly reusable first stage and the most reliable, successful, and cheapest launch vehicle in history. Starship is the next generation, and will be far more capable, cheaper, and reusable (both first and second stages: land it, refuel it, launch it again). And it’s built out of stainless steel in a big shed, essentially on a production line. This particular vehicle was Booster 7 and Starship 24, and was not intended to survive this test flight (if it had continued as planned, the booster would have “landed” on water in the Gulf of Mexico, before sinking, and the starship would have reached orbital velocity and re-entered the atmosphere over the Pacific before crashing into the sea near Hawaii). The next few boosters and starships, each one with improvements in design and manufacturing, are already built and good to go.
    Everything about this development program is new and risky. This was the first launch from the orbital launch mount and tower, which are more massive and far more expensive than the vehicle. That’s why SpaceX and analysts have been saying for months that if the first launch “clears the tower” it’ll be a success. It did and it was.
    Musk is a dick, but SpaceX has transformed space flight and seems likely to continue doing so.

    • bmaz says:

      Heh, no, it is certainly a setback. SpaceX is a government funded operation at this point. Totally agreed these things happen, and should be expected. Was good that no humans died.

      • NickBarnes says:

        SpaceX launches almost everything that goes to space, on its Falcon vehicles, for both government and non-government customers, and makes a good profit doing so. It’s _far_ less subsidised than any other launch company.
        How is this a setback, given that this vehicle was not meant to survive the flight?

        • bmaz says:

          JFC, something with billions invested in it blew up before even obtaining orbit and you don’t think that even qualifies as a “setback”? This may be an argument of semantics, but seriously??

          • Caladan says:

            Actual Engineer here: This was not a set back. This was an unwanted, but not unexpected outcome. SpaceX’s entire development process is based on build quick, test quick, fix quick, repeat. Engineers learn more from “Failure” than success.

            [Welcome to emptywheel. Please choose and use a unique username with a minimum of 8 letters; use the same username each time you comment. We are moving to a new minimum standard to support community security. Thanks. /~Rayne]

            • bmaz says:

              You betcha. You may be an “Actual Engineer”, but the semantical distinction you propound is bogus.

              Welcome to Emptywheel.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              Engineers might learn a lot, but for-profit companies hate your model. And in the case of several automotive companies, the learning curve you suggest is nearly flat.

            • icarustpenguin says:

              Yes, you can learn more from failure every time until you go out of business. What you learn from success is that you are actually qualified to design the thing you designed.

              Yes, I am an actual engineer and very proud of the low failure rate of my projects over the years.

          • Troutwaxer says:

            It’s really not a setback. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Open Source style iterative development, but the launch today was “release early, release often” for rocket ships. It’s pure Eric Raymond* “Cathedral and the Bazaar stuff” – exactly the kind of development that makes Linux run so robustly and securely.

            * Eric Raymond is no longer a reliable individual – he lost it badly after 9/11 – but when he wrote Cathedral and the Bazaar he was at the top of his game. (I should note that watching intellects like his dissolve into irrelevant wingnut goo is exactly why so many here wanted to see Fox get blown to bits during trial.)

            • Baltimark says:

              IMHO, you protest too much. I’ve been a tech team lead amd Scrumaster as well on large-system cloud migrations using Agile (incl. an early DOD private cloud migration and ACA appeals migration to Amazon). It’s cool and yes, “failing fast” is part of the ethos. But it’s still failure. A setback is definitionally “a delay in progress.” A substantial deployment with substantial bugs is not a disaster and is to be sometimes expected, BUT IT STILL DELAYS THE LIKELY ARRIVAL AT AN AGREED-UPON DEFINITION OF DONE longer than would be the case without the failure. And of course software failures do not automaticslly result in substantial capital losses as with A HUGE SPACESHIP BLOWING UP.

              I completely agree that a mission failure is not a project failure and also that the Agile ethos is valuable. Nonetheless, saying that more was learned from this failure is but another way of admitting that less was known than preciously hoped for. And the timeframe in which this spscecraft achieves full NASA accreditation has almost certainly been set back by this kaboom situation. Agile does not posit the non-existence of setbacks. Rather, it acknowledges their inevitability and seeks to learn from them. Yet they still exist.

              • Troutwaxer says:

                At this point SpaceX has has had eight launch failures. I’ll bet their critical path is built around the idea that a couple of these prototypes will fail, so I’m not sure there’s going to be any “delay” so much as “we’ve used one of our three expected critical failures.”

              • Buleriando says:

                Another actual engineer here. Per your own definition this was not a setback. If the launch had succeeded progress would not be faster, so the failure did not delay progress, ergo no setback.

                This prototype is one, arguably two versions behind what they already have pretty much ready to launch. It was scrap and destined to be scrapped. A successful launch would have meant very little because this is not the rocket they’re building (e.g. the booster’s engine steering systems are now electric, not hydraulic like on this model).

                They launched, it failed, they learned a lot – possibly even more than from a successful launch. It was not a setback.

                • bmaz says:

                  Hi there. Actual human here. Your semantics are ludicrous. Of course it was a setback. Don’t gaslight people here. Were humans killed, no. Is failure at some point in tests expected, yes. But was this a “failure” given all the SpaceX hype? Absolutely.

                  • Troutwaxer says:

                    Before commenting further, I’d strongly suggest reading “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” and thinking about how those principles might be applied to a large engineering project. (There are probably better reads on the subject, but they’d be advanced engineering texts and CATB is plainly written without talking down.)

                    Dropping the big hint: You’re far enough outside your field to make some pretty thoughtless errors, so rather than being ugly about it (as you are to those who don’t understand legal issues) I’ve provided the necessary text for you to educate yourself.


                    • bmaz says:

                      Thanks. I will be just fine. And, “before commenting further” YOU might want to acknowledge you have no knowledge whatsoever about by physics and science background. Have you ever even read our “About” page??

                    • john gurley says:

                      Yep, that’s bmaz, an attorney who, I’ve learned, also imagines he’s an expert in evolutionary science, and the evolution of technology.

                      Because…his undergraduate biology degree was in neuroscience.

                      And his site resume claims knowledge of physics, my profession, which I have seen little evidence of. He was making the preposterous claim the other day that the defeat of Betamax by VHS “proved” that technology does not evolve.

                    • bmaz says:

                      Hi there. My biography on the “about” page is accurate, not puffed up in any way. No, to my recollection, I never claimed to be “an expert in evolutionary science”. As to “evolution of technology”, I am as expert as anyone else generally and have been consuming it with interest for many decades. And, yes, the death of Beta to the far inferior VHS was pretty notable and ridiculous.

                  • Buleriando says:

                    Bmaz, I have immense respect for you, the rest of the team, and many of the commenters. This is one of the few sites I read religiously – including the comments. That said I am truly confused here, and definitely not trying to gaslight.

                    (For the record, I dislike Musk, and SpaceX/Musk consistently overpromise. From what you’ve written I agree with your take on him. And yes, I know, you don’t care.)

                    You said the launch failed. Absolutely. And it says so right in my comment.

                    But the comment chain was about whether this was a setback, and I was responding specifically to Baltimark’s comment which conflates failure and setback. It says the launch failed (granted!) and then pivots to a definition of setback and asserts without proof and IN CAPS that there was delay and therefore a setback.

                    How is it gaslighting when I point out that this is wrong?

                    In the meantime it turns out there was major damage to the launch platform. That very well may be an actual setback unfortunately.

              • Tech Support says:

                “A substantial deployment with substantial bugs is not a disaster”

                Tell that to the end-users, buddy.

                Oh wait, devs don’t ever talk to end users.

                • john gurley says:

                  True. It’s good business practice for the sales guys and tech support to occasionally drag a dev or two along to meet customers.

      • boatgeek says:

        Maybe this is deep in semantic weeds, but I don’t really see it as a setback. They didn’t go as far forward as they would have liked, but the test did prove out some basic things:
        * The launch pad works, though it needs a better blast deflector
        * They got most of the engines firing
        * The structure was good–it made it to maximum aerodynamic loads plus survived some spinning around that would have destroyed many rockets

        I think there was a lot of reasonable skepticism in the industry about some of those questions.

        That said, they do still need to work on:
        * Some engines didn’t light on liftoff, so what failed?
        * Some engines cut out during boost, so what failed?
        * The rocket didn’t stage, so what failed?

        The only good side of Elmo being a shitstain is that Gwynne Shotwell is basically running the company while Elmo is busy screwing up Twitter. Getting Elmo out of the building may well have increased productivity since the people doing the work wouldn’t have to deal with his micromanagement as much.

      • algebraist says:

        So the Billionaires (e.g Jared Issacman who’ve paid for flights count as government?
        All the commercial customers they have, including the European Space Agency because they can’t get Ariane 6 to work.
        The fact that NASA is not funding Starship work in favour of the Senate Launch System?

        You cannot claim with a straight face that their funding is exclusively from NASA.

      • timbozone says:

        Not much of a setback. Apparently SpaceX has three others of these big babies in later stages of production AND is about to hit a pace of producing an engine every day. If that’s true (and it’s likely close to true) then SpaceX is far and away waaaay ahead in heavy launch capabilities…like years ahead. Either way, it’s almost certain that there will be a successful Starship launch by the end of 2023.

        I suggest rewatching the cheers at SpaceX hq when this rocket blew up when stage 1 separation failed. Why are they cheering? The failed launch most certainly provided great data for the next launch. The engine failure pattern indicates different types of build and line quality to and amongst the 33 engines/engine groups, meaning that there’s tons of good data in this week’s “failed” launch, data that can be used to fix a ton of things prior to the next launch.

    • NickBarnes says:

      Having now seen pictures of the crater under the launch mount, dug by the rocket exhaust, I have reconsidered. The damage done to the launch infrastructure (“stage zero”) is severe. They were trying to do without a flame trench and a deluge system, using a highly elevated launch table and a lot of very highly refractory concrete instead. That would be cheaper and easier if it worked, which is why they tried it (they apparently have designed and partially fabricated a deluge system; parts of it have been photographed at the site many times in the last few months, by the amateur army of “tank-watchers”). It was an experiment; the experimental results are dramatic, and a setback to the Starship program.

      Both SpaceX and analysts have been saying for months that if the first full-up launch “cleared the tower” then it would be a success, because (a) they would get a load of data from the system (which was the whole purpose of this launch – the longer the flight lasted, the more data they would get), and (b) the main perceived risk of this launch was damage to “stage zero” – the launch tower, mount, propellant farm, etc. In that second sense, this launch did _not_ “clear the tower”, and that is a serious problem.

      The vehicle loss, as previously explained, is no big deal. The vehicle *was never intended to survive this test flight*. They have more vehicles, ready to go; they are building more all the time, and each one is cheaper and better than the one before. They routinely scrap starships or boosters, fresh off the production line, because they have figured out a key design improvement. Some are built _just to work out the bugs in the production process_ (this is why today’s launch was Starship number 24 and Booster number 7). In this way, Starship is completely unlike more conventional rocket programs. If Arianespace lost an Ariane 6, that would be bad. If ULA lost an SLS, that would be a _huge_ disaster for the SLS/Artemis/Gateway programs. Starship is not like Ariane or SLS.

      • AgainBrain says:

        “The vehicle loss, as previously explained, is no big deal. The vehicle *was never intended to survive this test flight*. They have more vehicles, ready to go; they are building more all the time, and each one is cheaper and better than the one before. They routinely scrap starships or boosters, fresh off the production line, because they have figured out a key design improvement. Some are built _just to work out the bugs in the production process_ (this is why today’s launch was Starship number 24 and Booster number 7).”

        ^^^ This. The “setback” was the damage to the launch platform. The rocket being scuttled was no setback, it had already passed its “ok to expire” date (the moment it safely cleared the tower) and was deep in “bonus data collection”.

        Mars Rover sent data for years after “expire” date (mission end). Nobody viewed as a setback when it stopped transmitting, because everyone understood every bit of data past mission completion was “bonus” — they *expected* data could end at any moment. That’s _why_ it lasting years longer was so impressive.

        • P J Evans says:

          NASA/JPL is famous for their projects lasting well beyond their design lifetime. They’re also know for testing very very thoroughly before the project gets to the launch vehicle.

          • Tech Support says:

            Software types above mentioned Agile which is a development methodology that has become overwhelmingly popular in the last 10-20 years. It effectively abandons the notion of doing comprehensive testing prior to release. Write code, kick the tires lightly, push it out.

            In practical terms, it means that software released this way is permanently “in beta.” When applications had to be delivered on physical media, this would have never flown. Thanks to network-based distribution and updates, it’s logistically feasible to modify a product every month, every week, or every day.

            Personally, I find the approach fundamentally abusive to the people who actually have to use these systems to get their job done. It’s fine for free or free-ish, consumer-grade, online services, but Agile has developed a sort of religiosity around it that makes it’s adherents imagine that it is the correct solution to all software lifecycle problems. It’s terrible for things that absolutely have to work right the first time.

            SpaceX and NASA proper are probably the most tangible, visible demonstrations of these two schools of thought, even though software is only a small part of the engineering work they do.

            • Troutwaxer says:

              The reason for “release early, release often” is specifically to solicit/get feedback from the people who will actually be using the software. There are organizations where this doesn’t work correctly, of course, but at least they’re trying to use a methodology which includes the end user – which is not true for all forms of software development. As an end user under Agile or DevOps you at least have a chance of being heard.

              Note that I’m not stating that Agile is perfect, and certainly not the right methodology for all projects, but it’s based on some pretty careful thinking about why software projects fail.

  5. P J Evans says:

    6 or 7 of the engines weren’t firing, and they didn’t get separation. Not surprised it blew up. It was 50-50 if the test would work.

  6. Phaedruses says:

    Having watched several streams of the launch, it appears the hydraulic control system was disrupted after launch by one of the engines that failed and exploded during assent. This unit controls the engine gimbals and flight control surfaces.

    This failure of the hydraulic system caused the rocket to begin tumbling at the point of what they call MAX-Q.

    When ANY rocket is tumbling during assent, the call is the terminate the flight using the flight termination system, IE explode the rocket while it is in an area where no civilian loss of life and minimal damage can occur.

    Watching the end of the flight it is apparent that the booster was terminated several seconds before the starship itself was terminated. The termination system is explosives placed at the junction of the methane and liquid O2 tanks which cause the vehicle to rapid disassemble and terminate flight operations in the safest manner possible.

    That said the rocket cleared the tower, and made it to max-q which allows an enormous amount of flight data for spaceX to figure out what went right, and what went wrong.

    Also the next booster slated for launch does not have any hydraulic power units at all, space x has already gone to an electric control on engine gimbals and flight control surfaces, so they must have already known the hydraulic power unit was a problem.

    From the standpoint of learning how to get the starship to orbit and on to the moon, this was a success, the engineers at space x have learned TONS of real world data to compare to the millions of mega bytes of data from computer simulations they have done before the launch. That was what this launch was about learning, not getting anything to orbit as the payload area of the rocket was empty, and both the booster and starship were slated to end up being destroyed at the end of a completely successful flight operation, the booster ending up in the Gulf of Mexico near Boca chica, and the starship approximately 100 miles north of Hawaii.

    Yes I’m a bit of a space nerd, have been since I watched the Gemini launches in the mid 60’s.

    • RipNoLonger says:

      I just got a whole semester’s course in modern day rocketry (?) in your great post. I also worked in some satellite launch endeavors in the 80’s/90’s and the expectation was if it made it to orbit it was a win. If not, it was a lesson learned.

  7. PeteT0323 says:

    Following the commentary on space.com it seemed like some of the Raptor engines might have been failing or going on/offline line.

    Pure speculation, but I image with 33 of them if you loose several – up to six as reported – in one area you might get the loopy trajectory seen.

    My hunch is that the range people pushed the boom button.

    Elmo concentrating on Twitter maybe he leaves SpaceX alone more than he used to. I kind of wish the idea of going to Mars or even back to the moon (Artemis -NASA) should be prioritized in light of all of the other issues we face – like decarbonization.

    Apparently rocket exhaust affects the atmosphere more than one might think given the infrequency of launches versus pollution spewing ships, boats, and airliners. https://www.space.com/rocket-exhaust-pollution-upper-atmosphere

    • vietvet68-9 says:

      Unfortunate that our national policy has shifted from the leaky high pressure and difficult-to-manage hydrogen/oxygen rockets, which don’t use and produce reckless quantities of greenhouse gas fuels or produce, to the cheaper Muskier fuels. Perhaps we should consider a different approach: Save the World! We might need it later. You never know.

  8. ExpatR&RDino-sour says:

    Remember all those exploding rockets before Jupiter C launched Explorer 1? They were the stepping stones that got us to the Moon. I’m no Elmo fan, but Space X is the real deal.

    • P J Evans says:

      So many failures, back then. Demonstrating the wisdom of testing a lot before trying to go with a valuable payload.

      • RipNoLonger says:

        And now we can run simulations of many/most (not all) contingencies from the comfor of our computer cubicles.

        I don’t know how much the new brands of AI are getting involved in analyzing the development of these machines or trying to understand the problems that might arise (O-rings). It would be fascinating to hear the big picture explanations when available.

    • db_rouse says:

      That was before the engineers realized that hold down latches were a must. It turned out that things went a lot better if the thrust came to max and allowed to stabilize before letting the rocket move.

  9. wasD4v1d says:

    I would say this IS breaking news, and it will keep breaking and breaking for a few days until the media finds another shiny object. The 33 engines reminds me of the Soviet moon launcher that also failed to thrive, barely cleared the pad onthe fourth attempt, and fell back – obliterating the launch pad. StarShip flew for four minutes even with a couple lights out, high enough to reach the second stage; it appears the the separation is what failed. To declare victory is not completely out of bounds, though what might have happened with a large payload is a question.

  10. ApacheTrout says:

    Test flights produce excellent data regardless of outcomes. Keep at it, SpaceX. Hopefully they won’t need too many more test flights.

    NASA made the correct decision to get out of the launch industry. SpaceX stepped up big time (with ample NASA support or ahem, subsidies) and their Falcon 9 has an excellent track record. The payload launch price of $10,000 per lb is steadily dropping, and will continue to do so as more competitors successfully launch their rockets..

    Launching rockets of this size is a much different story (not news to SpaceX), and it’s important for NASA to continue with the SLS system (despite its costs and wasteful single use function) and maintain viable alternatives until Starship (or another competitor achieves success.

  11. rattlemullet says:

    Obviously SpaceX engineers are some of the best in the space industry, being able to return main stage boosters back with pinpoint accuracy to earth has been a game changer. Hopefully they retrieved enough data to determine what caused the malfunction. As you state SpaceX is a government funded industry, being one of Nasa’s major contractors. I root for their success in spite of Musk. Ironic that he refers to NPR as government funded. His self awareness is not his greatest asset.

  12. earlofhuntingdon says:

    “Rapid disassembly” is what happens to a Jenga tower or when your kids toss the 500-piece jigsaw puzzle they just finished onto the floor.

    Rapid disassembly is not what happened to the Twin Towers, or when a lower Manhattan car garage pancaked onto itself. Neither the Oklahoma City federal building nor the Challenger space shuttle rapidly disassembled. They exploded.

    SpaceX appears to have destroyed its billion dollar rocket because it suffered critical failures and its flight was uncontrollable. Beforehand, it might have generated useful reams of data. But it was undoubtedly a setback.

    • boatgeek says:

      /SpaceX appears to have destroyed its billion dollar rocket…/

      Dispute the premise. SpaceX may have spent a billion dollars on the overall Starship development program, but this was not a billion-dollar loss. The 33 engines are the most expensive part at roughly a million each. The raw steel is another million or so. There’s roughly 5K-10K person-hours of labor building the structure, so that’s another million or two. All told, it’s plausible that the cost is around $50 million for the parts that blew up. I would be surprised if it was over $100 million.

      On top of that, the end result of this flight test was always that the rocket was going to be completely destroyed. It just got to that point a little faster than expected. These are also not the latest generation of either the spacecraft structures or the engines, so they weren’t far from scrap value anyway.

      I am no apologist for Elmo. But from an engineering perspective, this is somewhere between a C+ and a B, depending on what the failure modes were.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Grade inflation is a plague.

        “On top of that, the end result of this flight test was always that the rocket was going to be completely destroyed. It just got to that point a little faster than expected.”
        – The corporate apology industry doesn’t write as well as this.

        “These are also not the latest generation of either the spacecraft structures or the engines, so they weren’t far from scrap value anyway.”
        – Not the high-tech description Elmo uses to sell his marvels. Is scrap what you would use to launch a NASA rocket?

        • boatgeek says:

          It’s a little frustrating that the lawyers here (rightfully) demand respect for their profession but don’t seem to like giving it to other professions. I am not a corporate apologist.

          I gave what I think as a pretty clear-eyed description of where the test succeeded and where it failed above. In an engineering test, it is a partial success when you demonstrate that the test article meets the major objectives that would be absolute dealbreakers, you fail to meet other objectives, and you gather information that will allow you to meet the objectives you failed.

          Think of this like the first crash test of a new car model. You’ve done a lot of analysis and work before you put it in the crash test lane. You have a pretty good idea of where the test is going. And at the end of the test, you have a destroyed car and more information about what you need to change. That’s a partially successful test. Sometimes you get surprised and it doesn’t perform as well as you expected. That’s also a partially successful test if you can use the data to redesign where needed. It is extremely rare for a newly designed object to work exactly how you expected in the first test.

          If the launch tower had been destroyed, or half of the engines failed, or the rocket’s structure had failed before getting blown up by range safety systems, I would call it an unsuccessful test. That would show that the entire premise of the rocket’s design was wrong and major redesigns are needed.

          As far as scrap value, the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica is littered with bits and parts of things that they tried and discarded. That’s how that company rolls. For good reasons, NASA does things differently than SpaceX. They have to because they operate on the public purse. They do a lot more analysis and fewer flights. That makes every flight a high-stakes endeavor. And no, I do not expect either one to be like the other, since they’re different animals. I also wouldn’t expect NASA to pay SpaceX for a Starship mission until the bugs are worked out and they have successful flights.

          • earlofhuntingdon says:

            I was critiquing your argument, not you. One place we seem to differ is on what constitutes failure. I see it as existing along a continuum, not as a single point of failure.

            You argued that the rocket was destroyed only a little sooner than expected and that that makes the test not a failure. That has the appearance of apologetics.

            You seemed to argue that failure would require the complete rapid disassembly of the launch pad and not just the rocket. Is that analogous to arguing that the aircraft didn’t fail so long as the aircraft carrier was not also destroyed? Similarly, that it wasn’t a failure if the rocket reached a minimum altitude. How high is that?

            You argued that this rocket launch was like an automotive crash test, which is minutely studied for the effects on the car and its occupants of crashes at different speeds. I’ve never heard that that’s how Elmo understood his rocket launches. It does seem to be how he understands testing his driverless car technology.

            NASA operates, or used to, under different terms of reference than Elmo not because it uses public funds, but because it is subject, in part, to public accountability and because its mission is centered on crewed flight.

            • boatgeek says:

              You’re saying the test is a failure because it didn’t achieve all of its objectives. And then you’re saying that I’m the one who sees success or failure as a binary? It’s a partially successful test, and that’s what I’ve been saying all along. They succeeded on some things (including, IMHO the most important things for the program) and failed on others. And yes, I stand by the notion that a complete failure would be a major structural failure or total destruction of the pad. On further reflection, I’ll drop the grade by half a letter because of the damage at the base of the pad.

              What’s the minimum altitude for it to be a total failure? I’d put that less at altitude and more at a speed. At the maximum aerodynamic pressure (aka Max Q), the aerodynamic loads on the structure are the highest. If there was going to be a major structural failure, it would have been at or before that time. Since it passed cleanly through Max Q, the structure was proven. That also gave a partly-green light to the engine systems, though as I previously noted they need to figure out why engines are going out.

              If you’ve never heard that Elmo understands his launches/tests as crash tests to study and find problems to fix, you haven’t been paying attention. They gather data on every flight, and even more so on test flights. That was in public statements from early in the landing attempts for Falcon 9. I distinctly recall one statement that was something like “We understand why it blew up this time and have fixed it. It will blow up for a different reason next time.” And it did, for several more landing attempts. Then they started sticking the landings and haven’t looked back since.

              I won’t argue with you about driverless car technology. The difference between that and this is that (a) nobody was on board for this launch because of the risk of failure (and they won’t be until the flights and landings are well proven) and (b) SpaceX isn’t selling rides on the test flights to anyone. They’re a part of development of the system. In the failed landings above, the paid part of the missions went perfectly, with the satellites delivered to the correct orbit. The customer was happy with the result and Elmo got testing time with the first stage.

              NASA operates with more public scrutiny because they operate with public funds. A SpaceX launch for NASA comes at a higher cost than other launches because of the scrutiny and paperwork that NASA requires. That’s right and proper. And despite NASA’s commitment to crew safety, there’s been a grand total of 1 orbital spacecraft whose first flight was crewed. That was the Space Shuttle, a NASA joint. Every other program used uncrewed test flights for exactly this reason–there’s a risk of failure from a surprise that engineering didn’t catch.

              • bmaz says:

                Listen Boatgeek, it fucking blew up. Yes, that IS a failure. You just expended 488 words, and untold number of internet electrons, arguing what was admitted completely in my 328 word original post. Before anybody, much less you, jumped into comments.

                • NickBarnes says:

                  How do you reconcile that with the oft-repeated statements by SpaceX, over the last several years, that if the first launch cleared the tower then it would be a success? Aren’t they entitled to set their own success criteria, in public, well in advance of their own test, and then to judge the test according to those criteria?

                  A lot of commentators in the media declared the SN8/9/10 tests to be failures, because the vehicles blew up. It was all over the intarwebs. Those of us who had been watching the Starship program since long before it was called Starship, and who watched the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 programs for many years before that, knew better. We remember the painstaking development of, for instance, the Falcon 9 landing program. Lots of rockets blew up. It was a tremendous success.

                  This test was a setback, because of the damage to stage zero.

                  • earlofhuntingdon says:

                    Despite his penchant for doing so, Elmo is not entitled to define his own criteria for success, the way Trump does when playing golf. His euphemisms for failure amount to terminological inexactitudes.

                    I don’t argue that the test was a complete failure. And, no doubt, it generated reams of useful data, as tests are meant to do. But it would appear that multiple systems failed for different reasons.

                    If engineers predicted what failed and when, and were only interested in why or in confirming their predictions, that would be a success. But that doesn’t seem to be the process here.

                • boatgeek says:

                  So there’s a word count limit and a shortage of electrons? You’d rather I not explain why I think the way I do and just tell the other person they’re wrong? Roger that.

              • Greg Hunter says:

                Transferring the testing of propulsion systems from the government space to the private sector has all the advantages you would want as capitalism finds the “right” solution no matter the environmental costs. It was “smart” as government works best when capitalism either goes too far or actually lands on a solution that is “good” for all of society.

                The scientific method demands repeated failures to succeed, but that method in American society has led to all kinds of real world consequences that should have been considered before rolling out any new product.

                See putting tetra-ethyl lead in gasoline for an excellent example of putting profits over the health of society.

                • earlofhuntingdon says:

                  I’m confused by your first paragraph. I would say capitalism is built on excess and an exaggeratedly narrow focus, as much as on its purported efficiency, leading to enormous negative consequences for those not at the top.

                  • Greg Hunter says:

                    In an ideal US world the free market would be allowed to operate in a manner that enabled innovation that arrived at the “best” solution. If that “best” solution benefits all of society then government should take over that solution.

                    For instance the Post Office solved the problem of secure and rapid communication that attempted to ensure the privacy of ideas and thoughts were for all the people and not just the King.

                    At the dawn of electrical age there was a free market shoot out to determine the “best” type of electricity for society. In the end the US Government did not have to step in as manufacturers of electrical goods came to agree on a standard type (AC – 120V).

                    We have a regulated Common Defense, but we have very little requirements when it comes to educating America. Education of society became a good idea much in the same way as electricity.

                    Now how society deals with the excesses brought on by capitalism that is not regulated or taxed correctly is another issue and one I think we lost in the so called Progressive Era. All these issues require a much more nuanced discussion than what can be had here.

  13. db_rouse says:

    Personally, I suspect the flight control system. MECO didn’t happen on time and to me it seemed like it didn’t happen at all. Those engines were firing right up to the time where they activated the flight termination system. Without MECO there could be no stage seperation. You have to have at least a brief moment where there is no acceleration so the stages can cleanly seperate. Otherwise the second stage will get unwanted vectors applied to it right at ignition, or in the worst case, blowtorch right into the booster’s tank and then doing a RUD.

    As far as the Raptors not working, they use a combustion cycle that hasn’t had decades of development unlike engines that everyone else uses. I think that the Russians tried it back in the day but never went anywhere with it. So like everything else about the Starship concept, they are really in uncharted territory. I don’t find it surprising at all that it failed. I sure that there will more than a couple more given their development philosophy.

  14. fidservant says:

    So refreshing to see science geeks responding! My little nerd brain is thrilled, and my aviation heart is happy to see a non-lethal test flight.

    I spent ten-plus years living and breathing general aviation, and the amount of badly designed junk flying around our airspace is frightening. There are a large handful of small airplanes I would not set foot in, due to a wide variety of reasons both logical and illogical.

    IMO, this is a good way to gather data from a proposed machine, versus the previous method of making ONE prototype and risking highly-trained personnel on it.

  15. Leu2500 says:

    The how it blew up is actually important.

    If it should have auto destructed & didn’t, & a human had to initiate it, is a problem.

  16. Rapier says:

    Manned spaceflight is a stupendous waste of energy and it’s energy that ‘we’ need. “Need” meaning keeping 8 billion humans alive going forward.
    Every space opera ever committed to the screen assumes, energy, limitless easy and seemingly free. If we had that very thing, energy, then sure, go off to space. We don’t have that. Just the opposite.

    Space travel is in part a grift. Musk’s Mars cities are a pipe dream.

    • RipNoLonger says:

      Thanks for making me think about the reality of this all. How many people are going to be “rescued” from the failing Planet Earth and at what cost to the “Left Behinds”. I think we all get swept up in the winds of technological advances and don’t think of the costs.

    • Tech Support says:

      The problem with this argument is that the boundaries for the justifiable use of energy are wholly subjective. You could just as well declare (as my wife does regularly) professional sports as a monumental waste of every finite resource that is invested in it.

      If anything, the energy investment in space exploration is more justifiable than pro sports because of the scientific learning and all the collateral innovations that come from the stupendously hard technological problems that have to be solved in order to accomplish the stated goals.

      Now cryptocurrencies… THAT is a massively useless waste of energy.

  17. Greg Hunter says:

    If man’s only hope for survival is space then we do not deserve to get off this planet. I prefer billionaires that work on earth based problems like Gates, Soros and Buffett rather than Musk or Bezos.

    I would rather achieve Biden’s 30×30 conservation plan rather than land on the moon again, but I know which one will happen.

    With that said I appreciate the geek out on space as the discussions have been uplifting!

    • Datnotdat says:

      Seabird nesting (and sea turtle nesting) areas at Boca Chica now covered with another layer of SpaceX debris.

      Greg, I also (dual purpose) get a charge from the “geek out” aspects of this.

      • PeterHug says:

        I agree that this is an incredibly stupid place to put the facility. In the end he will clearly have to move everything to Florida.

      • Max404Droid says:

        And then there was Chuck Feeney.


        Feeney gave away his fortune in secret for many years, until a business dispute resulted in his identity being revealed in 1997. Feeney has given away more than $8 billion….On September 14, 2020, Feeney closed down the Atlantic Philanthropies after the nonprofit accomplished its mission of giving away all of Feeney’s money by 2020.

      • Greg Hunter says:

        Absolutely. Again the “Progressive Era” which resulted in a bunch of Amendments to the Constitution was the the rich looking around and deciding that instead of them paying the tax, they pushed it on the workers. I am not fond of the 17th Amendment either.

        The capture of the US Government by business interests was part of the founding but accelerated in the early 1900s.

  18. Phaedruses says:

    SpaceX has a larger problem than a destroyed rocket;

    This image from RGV video on Lab padre’s twitter account shows the area under the launch table after the launch.


    Most of the damage to the predator engines most probably came from the 33 engines dislodging all the missing concrete and sub base. Before the launch the base was heat resistant concrete all around probably a foot thick or more.

    On one of the live streams a section of concrete hits the NSF van that was being used as a remote camera base a couple hundred feet from the launch pad, with a berm between, the piece of concrete looked to be near 50 lbs that hit the back of the van . Images show concrete chunks laying on highway 4 outside the base.

    SpaceX cannot fire off the rocket and throw huge chunks of concrete at everything around the area each time they launch, they have to re-think and redesign the base of the launch pad;

    Most probably do as NASA does in Florida, and have a flame trench built.

    • rosalind says:

      thanks for the link! lots of great info in the comments section from various engineers. most agree the site will prove a challenge for constructing a deep enough flame trench. from one:

      “The problem, I suspect, is they are damn near in the water table (ocean sea-level) and will have to use a crapload of dewatering pumps and a coffer dam system to build the trench pit. Then will probably have to have continuous sump pumps going non-stop.”

  19. e.a. foster says:

    Well that wasn’t fun. Would have preferred the rocket had gone into space. However, I’m sure scienttists will figure it out and next time it will work better. The important thing is no lives were lost.

    Recall when they first landed on the moom. It was exciting. Some of the space vehicles which have been propelled into outer space have provided us with information we did not have before. Was it worth it given the expense? Can’t really say. Would the money have been better spent here on earth dealing with issues which need to be dealt with such as supplying water, housing, health care, etc. My take on us as humans is, that would not have happened because the majority of people don’t care enough to do what is necessary, so the money spent on space, might at least give us some answers about what is out there.
    Now if some think they will be able to go to a new planet when this one has become unfit to sustain life, good luck with that one because we won’t get that together in time.

  20. Spank Flaps says:

    Too many engines in the first stage, like the Soviet N-1. Too many moving parts means more things to go wrong.
    That’s one small setback gone bang, and one giant cockup my arse.

    • theartistvvv says:

      That was a rather unfortunate phrasing, m’thinks.

      Perhaps a missing comma …

      I mean, how do you feel about it?

  21. Jim O'Neill says:

    Really interesting discussion here (as I find is usually true when I read thru the comments on any topic). Sorta related question: Has anyone read C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy?

  22. Lika2know says:

    NASA’s recent “heavy” test launch of Artemis also significantly damaged the KSC launchpad, even with the million-gallon water system and blast trench.

    With a “test more” development approach, Space-X either needs to plan to rebuild the pad after each test or invest in a significantly more robust pad.

    Note: KSC pads are close to shore, essentially in a barrier island.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        It’s just a test. Failures are expected during tests. But probably not this sort of failure, and possibly not several of the other ones that led to the rocket’s catastrophic failure.

        Useful to know, for example, whether damage to the pad is owing to unexpectedly strong thrust, too long an exposure to it, design failures in the pad, or intentional cost cutting in its components or manufacture.

        Some of those things are often systemic, affecting other elements of a project. Reminds me of the difference between the old Boeing and the new Boeing, when it transitioned from a NASA-like safety culture to a hurry up and take-off culture.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Useful to know that all of those things probably contributed to the failure of this rocket test.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Additional food for thought. The thrust was “expectedly” much higher. The rocket as launched apparently generated more than 20% more thrust than disclosed to regulators when seeking their approval. Might account for damage to the pad and surrounding ecological environment.

        The commentary suggests inadequate regulation and a corporate culture of expedience over robustness or safety. The new Boeing mentality metastasizing.


        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          More than one failure, it seems. I also note the considerable damage to what El Mo Drax calls Stage Zero, the launch pad, which apparently costs about the same as half a dozen rockets, and performs many more functions than the launch pads used by NASA.

          Separation, it seems, got fucked up because first three, then six, then eight engines failed, too little fuel was burned, along with the unplanned burning of metal, leading to too little thrust and insufficient altitude. Attitude control failed.

          In an attempt to compensate, the primary engines kept burning, which prevented the simplistic mechanism used for separation from working. Rocket tumbled head over heels leading some brave soul to push that big red button. The absence of flame diverters and a water deluge system, decisions made personally by El Mo, apparently directly contributed to the severe damage to Stage Zero. Cascading systems failures. SpaceX might learn a lot from these failures. But will they?


  23. Retired guy says:

    Some nuances to add to the pile-on.

    SpaceX of today would not exist without the big contracts it earned with NASA; bmaz is right on this. Making the booster reuse thing work economically provided profit to do things the company wanted to do, like Starship.

    Why was SpaceX successful where so many startups have failed? In the 1990s several well-capitalized startups, a few of them credible, went for the same kinds of NASA contracts. Most failed for management and engineering reasons and the more capable ones bitterly complained that NASA refused to fully embrace their opportunity. I was not close enough to these initiatives to judge who was right, but industry, NASA, and congressional appropriators learned a lot from the experience, setting the stage for this model of operational spaceflight.

    Why has SpaceX been successful? Here is my model. Musk brought a buzz, fanaticism, a clean sheet of paper and some funding to the table. A critical mass of experienced space system developers and project managers saw that it was credible startup, and even if it failed, they would get to design and make new rockets for a few years while drawing a paycheck. This fanatical workforce is used to aerospace projects being canceled, often before actually getting to a launch pad.

    When SpaceX’s first rocket actually got off the pad and a ways downreange before falling apart from a stupid materials mistake, the aerospace workforce took notice, and spaceX attracted more skilled and motivated people. When they achieved increasing reliability, it attracted more skills.

    Space programs get to flight largely on the motivation of a fanatic workforce of space cadets, willing to engage in a tight team to overcome massive inevitable technical and human behavioral obstacles. I was one of them at NASA.

    SpaceX did well enough to earn flight demonstration contracts with NASA, and these basic successes. Attracted more skilled workforce. The great miracle is that SpaceX was able to assemble a capable middle and upper management team, because the projects were credible and might work.

    My impression is this leadership team was not designed or cultivated out of Musk’s “genius” vision. It came together to some extent as a self-organizing critical mass of experienced, but open minded space cadets, including senior executoves, business managers, contract negotiators, policy analysts,and all the project and engineering skills, who were chomping at the bit to make a new generation of rockets. The executive leaders figured out how to “manage up” the wacky, unpredictable CEO, and when the company delivered good rockets and launches, they could steer Musk away from his many unproductive brain farts.

    I disagree with bmaz on this launch being a failure and a setback.I judge it to be a wild success. Let me explain.

    Most of us have an incomplete view of the history of industrial rocket development: the first really big rocket program was the ICBM development in the 1950s and 60s, with 20 ICBM test launches to every public one we heard about in news media. This military program was well funded and urgent and while they were trying to get rockets that worked, they were also inventing how junior USAF officers were going to launch them. Given the strategic national interest, the developers then moved fast and broke things, and the public programs took advantage of this early test program. The initial public space launches used these now mature system. This gives us all themistaken impression that rockets can be built as reliable from the first. The Saturn and Shuttle launch systems were unusual in this respect, and all the more remarkable. The Soviets did much the same for their earlier rockets, but shrunk from the “perfect first launch” mindset of their massive N1 rocket failures and, later the Buran Shuttle – there were political forces behind this shrinking as well.

    Whether SpaceX knew this history, or derived it from first principals adapted from Silicon Valley management babble (move fast and break things) it is a fast path to new systems if you have structured the business around the model – make lots of rockets and you get good at making rockets. Launch a lot of rockets and you get good at launching rockets, even if the early ones fail a lot. With good documentation configuration management, and enough test instrumentation/telemetry and tracking data, you can quickly figure out what caused each failure. If you are making a lot of rockets, you can quickly make a correction for the next attempt.

    Musk previously gave this test flight 50% likely of full success. This test was the first fight of the big booster with a full set of engines, and it got nearly to full first stage boost, under good attitude control. As far as I can tell, SpaceX does not publish its flight test objectives. In all likelihood, SpaceX had to share this information with FAA to get a launch permit, but we may never know; still, a successful first stage boost of a new, novel first stage is a reasonable primary test objective, given existing flight history of the Starship second stage.

    Given my suggested model for how SpaceX works, they could launch again in a few months, as long as they can figure out cause, something they have a proven record, and make a solid fix. This is fundamentally different from the forces that grounded the space shuttles for two years after Challenger and Columbia. SpaceX has come back from much worse catastrophes, particularly the fire of a Dragon capsule, which everybody expected to end the company, but we now fly crews and cargo back and forth on the Dragon capsule.

    Musk is an unreliable narrator and marketing guy, so wait until there is a press conference by the booster project manager, or a senior executive (if it even happens) before drawing too many conclusions. As always, discount any predicted launch date of a new rocket. Judge performance on actual completed tests, not forecasts. SpaceX appears well positioned to get quickly to the next Starship test launch.

    All us old space cadets are speculating what happened and what to do about it online. I’ll spare you mine.

    Old guy rambles.

    • bmaz says:

      I continue to be amazed by the semantics. It. Blew. Up. That may still be a valuable test, but it was no steaming success. End of story. The world can take the good from it all and still admit the damn thing failed. This is not that hard.

      • Retired guy says:

        Aerospace testing sometimes involves stressing a system until failure. Most programs don’t do much of this as it is expensive , and a few cases where this happens are sometimes the result of test operators screwing up a test and destroying a piece of flight hardware. We cut short the second orbital flight test of the space shuttle, based on things learned in a botched test of the shuttle’s fuel cells.

        This may remain a semantic argument here, unless SpaceX releases the formal objectives for this test flight. I am just offering an informed opinion of how this stuff works, as an insider to this arcane world.

        Earlofhuntingdon’s comments well summarizes the insider speculation from public info. Elmo and his team apparently cut a corner to do this test flight, but I think it presumptuous to judge the launch failure to be a failure of the test program. Yeah, semantics, but space program engineering depends on specifics in prepared documentation we have not seen. Consider the test objectives to be a sealed legal document and we are all guessing what is in it, and maddeningly may never know, given the governance structure of this unconventional program. This question may be mooted with the next test flight of this novel system.

        I remain a deep fan of your many shared legal insights in this unfamiliar (to me) terrain, the usual scope of Marcy’s community. You have no reason to respect my opinion, as we are discussing a subject well beyond this forum’s usual compass. I wrote an overlong post to try to break down a barrier between these intellectual silos, reflecting loosely on C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures”, often a fool’s errand, but one I thought worthy of a comment.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          It’s definitional. Few to no one on this thread was talking about a “failure” of the rocket’s development or “test program.” We were debating, mindboggling to me, whether this launch was a failure.

          To me, executives with a mind like El Mo’s, who cut corners in the whimsical way he does, do not run tests explicitly to research failure modes as part of an overall development process. They just hope every test succeeds at something, and then brag about whatever that was, without ever stopping to consider why.

          • Retired guy says:

            Concur on all. I was quibbling with the original post’s use of the word “disaster” as I have lived through actual space flight disasters. It was a disaster for the launch pad, but not necessarily the other connotations that include major impacts to human life or systems.

            Concur on CEO spin messaging. My point of getting into the engineering weeds about how test launches are planned and managed, is the likelihood that the closer you get to the hardware and test team, there would be documented test objectives, configurations and success criteria, necessary to get to T zero for any test launch. Spin aside, the ability to do the next launch depend on the engineering way this launch fits into the goal of getting to an operational heavy launch Starship.

            Thinking about the destruction of the pad after another night’s sleep, getting a launch pad that works for the next test launch is on the critical path. Whether they choose to mitigate the damage to the pad and booster, depends on what risk was retired during the recent test. While it seems sensible to rebuild a pad with mitigation of this part, if the greater long term risk is the anomalies with separation and startup of Starship’s engines, I could see patching the pad, launch exactly the same as this recent mission (maybe a few easy pad upgrades) and repeat with a rework of the MECO/Sep system, potentially with software. Depending on what an improved pad would require in cost and schedule, whether you got the fight hardware to burn, and how the next test flight fits into the eventual operational readiness. We have no insight into this through Elmo tweets.

            Also bearing on this decision is the readiness schedule and design capability of the Starship launch pad at Cape Canaveral. If the recent test showed the Cape launch pad is up to the actual launch conditions, it may make sense to move the test operation to Florida. If the recent test indicates current plans for the Cape pad need to change, the test program has to figure out how to keep going in the Wild West of coastal Texas.

            This is a lot of “ifs” but not out of family with other large development and test programs. We look back on Saturn-Apollo and see the clear path to success, but there was a lot of open field scrambling (some crazy stories) to get to each milestone.

            It is fun to see that this long dormant part of my brain still sort of works.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              Cape Canaveral will never let this rocket near its launch pads until vast improvements in this rocket are made. And El Mo needs a new pad, not a patched one, because of the extended list of things he has it do besides have the rocket sit on it.

              The pad wasn’t designed for the thrust this rocket achieved, even with three engines out, owing to the debris the thrust and extended pad-time threw up, which also cocked up multiple other systems and the environment.

              Eventually, eight engines failed, the rocket retained too much fuel and too little thrust for its weight. The rocket couldn’t handle any of that. The separation “mechanism” isn’t a mechanism as it is in other rockets, but a flight maneuver: a roll that requires main engine shutdown for it to work. Here, it didn’t.

    • Rayne says:

      Given my suggested model for how SpaceX works, they could launch again in a few months, as long as they can figure out cause, something they have a proven record, and make a solid fix.

      No. Because this:

      will require demolition, structural and mechanical assessment of remaining equipment, order and delivery of a massive amount of steel and concrete, contract personnel while labor shortages still exist, for starters. This is more than a year of work right here.

      And then the FAA will evaluate both this rebuilt pad and the next craft after reconstruction, and will likely insist on more safeguards before approval, not just because debris flew further than expected but because Musk knew damage like this:

      was a possibility and he didn’t order preemptive measures.

      Old lady counter-rambling.

      • earlofhuntingdon says:

        Those wouldn’t be massive fuel tanks, right next to a navigable waterway, would they?

        • Rayne says:

          IIRC they’re oxygen tanks, so yes, fuel but not hydrocarbons. They were empty because the O2 was in the rocket but think of the what-ifs — what if one of the tanks hadn’t been emptied, what if debris hit the tank the way it hit a van parked parked more than 1/4 mile away…

          The tanks should have been behind a berm, for starters. There was just too much left to chance.

      • Retired guy says:

        Huge honor for me that you and Earl read and critiqued my overlong essay.I love your writing here.

        Your assessment may turn out to be more accurate than mine. My point has been not to mistake Musk’s improvisational wacky spin for the operational capability of SpaceX. We have little insight into their larger plan, and whether they had planned for this outcome.

        Anything can happen if capable project managers engage on the problems facing their projects.

    • fidservant says:

      Retired guy – Thanks for spelling out the background details. I think your take is spot on; you addressed many factors that I “know” but lack the vocabulary to describe. Cheers!

  24. Adam Selene says:

    Hi bmaz and all.

    Your description of the semi-expected SpaceX rocket explosion would have satisfied the hosts of SCTV’s “Farm Film Report” with Big Jim McBob (Joe Flaherty) and Billy Sol Hurok (John Candy).

    “It blowed up real good!”

    I agree with other commenters who are familiar with destructive testing methods — that there is no other way to get hard data than by building a prototype and lighting its fuse.

    • bmaz says:

      Lol, thanks for the help. Do you deny that it fucking blew up? No? Then spare me the lecture in semantics.

      “I agree with other commenters who are familiar with destructive testing methods”

      Yes, I blew shit up as a kid too.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Your comment suggests that Elmo intended the rocket and its much more expensive launch pad to be destroyed to the extent and in the manner it did. It seems to confuse him with a process-oriented executive who isn’t the first to fire his engineers for being too expensive, too slow, too precise, and too liable to prove him wrong.

  25. Lika2know says:

    Clearly, Space-X pad damage more severe than Artemis @ KSC. Didn’t say it wasn’t. But.. folks need the context that the only other Super-heavy also damaged a much more “prepared” pad, And according to my sources, the amount of damage on KSC pad was notably more than expected.

    I personally think the “setback” here is launch pad destruction for a company that plans/needs to do MORE testing. Should they have known better, done better? Probably, but it was no “billion dollar disaster.”

    Surprised none of the engineers here have referenced Thomas Edison’s thousand failed different light bulb designs.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Oh, I think Elmo already knows more than a thousand ways to fuck up. He just doesn’t know that many ways to avoid it.

      • Lika2know says:

        Space-X engineers have been pretty darn successful, and Musk does not deserve credit for their work. After all, he’s not a rocket engineer. Indeed, Musk is not an engineer at all. But there is likely a cultural component here: that launchpad engineering is not sexy, so it has to fight to be heard.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Anyone who had followed Musk’s career at Tesla and Twtr would know he still thinks creative destruction is a real entrepreneurial thing and not a crude oxymoron and shorthand for break it and see what floats.

          He’s addicted to micromanaging, to firing his most expensive workers and to blaming them for what are often his screw-ups. Those tossed out are typically experienced engineers. So the issue is not who worked at SpaceX once upon a time or to what standards they worked.

          • Lika2know says:

            I repeat, Musk is not an engineer. If he treated Space-X like he’s been treating Twitter, then give him both blame & credit. What I think we can hold him accountable for is a discounting of the need to invest in ground facilities for development, as I’m told by a former Space-X engineer I know that he was dismissive of the platform engineers’ conclusions. At this point, it is less about micromanagement and more about how fast they can rebuild and still get FAA certification for launch facilities. FAA will it operate on “Space-X time” and this will slow down development.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              I repeat, the issue is not whether El Mo has an engineering degree, despite that he wants it to appear as if he has one. It’s about his impatience, stubbornness, and perverse cost-cutting.

              And, um, “how fast they can rebuild” depends on what El Mo the boss lets his real engineers do and what resources he gives them, as well as how well they do it.

    • Rayne says:

      Thomas Edison’s thousand failed different light bulb designs” didn’t risk humans’ mortality or put entire ecosystems at risk during development, nor did Edison need the approval of a regulatory entity like the FAA to prevent interference in air space.

      What could one do with the money expended on this launch and incipient repairs? If it were me, I could invest it and expect to make a billion dollars between the date the launch was approved by management and the date the post-launch recovery is completed. That’s a billion dollars in lost opportunity cost — a billion dollar disaster — and I’m probably understating the opportunity cost.

      Now add the $13B in stock valuation Musk lost last Thursday. He’s making the case billionaires are not just a policy failure but begging to be taxed into millionaire status because money has lost all meaning when he can toss it around and encourage similarly careless personal thinking in the public. Were Musk a mere millionaire, he’d have to exercise more prudence.

      • Lika2know says:

        There was no billion dollars lost in that prototype test flight. And human space flight requires more testing (and therefore more crashed rockets), not less.

        Re: Edison comment. Well, exploding light bulbs, especially with direct current are dangerous to people and materials. But Edison’s position was that testing a thousand bulb prototypes was necessary. Today, with the techniques of Design of Experiments (a form of statistics just emerging at that time), the testing approach would need maybe 10% as many, depending on parameters.

        One of the reasons Space-X can follow their test & fail often approach is that they do their own manufacturing (not engines, electronics), which NASA does not/cannot do. So, they can expect to do more testing without necessarily planning each many years in advance, which NASA must do with contracting requirements.

        BTW, I am neither a lawyer nor an engineer, but a data architect who has mapped how data are created and used in a human space flight program development (precursor to Artemis), including testing.

        • Rayne says:

          There was no billion dollars lost in that prototype test flight.” Dude. Read what I wrote again. You’re clearly not familiar with accounting or economics, either, since you don’t understand opportunity cost.

          Now I’m even more worried if you’re doing data architecture for human space flight because what happened last week shouldn’t have. Period. Musk was warned by his own people at SpaceX and yet *boom*

          ADDER: You might want to think about this bit from NASA’s auditor before Congress March 2022, and how much costs have increased since then.

          “We found that the first four Artemis missions will each cost $4.1 billion per launch, a price tag that strikes us as unsustainable,” NASA Inspector General Paul Martin said during a meeting of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

          Do you really think the American public wants to pay for more exploding development launches. That’s not even a question.

          • Lika2know says:

            I do have an MBA, so got the opportunity cost story. But you seem to think that loss of 6 minutes of test flight is so destructive to the development that all is lost. It isn’t. IMO, the biggest setback is not due to the to rocket being destroyed early but to the loss of a suitable launch facility. The decision not to invest in a more robust launch pad can be laid at Musk’s feet from what I hear, but you seem to think that this loss is catastrophic for the development program, when multiple folks have pointed out that it is not.

            Every engineering development program starts out with unknowns, or you might as well use an existing design. Testing and analyses are the way to deal with those. And, testing results inform the analyses- either proving the analysis/model/simulation was right on, close, or just pain wrong. There is no substitute for physical testing to failure because of the data it produces. And, engineering runs on data.

            The amount of autonomy & opportunity to do rapid cycle hands-on engineering is like crack cocaine to smart, young engineers. They tend to burn out rather than be fired. But, after working elsewhere with a more typical glacial pace, the best & brightest with the right appetite stay/return. Musk exploits this.

            You keep thinking that it’s the rocket explosion that’s the “bad thing” even in the face of experienced engineers telling you otherwise.

            So, my point is to stop handwringing about the incomplete, but still useful test flight as watch the launch platform story.

            And, I don’t appreciate the ad hominem attack on my capabilities.

            • bmaz says:

              OMG, you have a MBA???

              Guess all ought to step back.

              Nobody is “ad hominem” attacking you, just noting you may be full of shit.

            • Rayne says:

              It isn’t. IMO, the biggest setback is not due to the to rocket being destroyed early but to the loss of a suitable launch facility.

              You mean the facility I shared a photo of in this thread? Really? ~eye roll~

              For the record I’ve worked in structural engineering; I met my spouse, a structural engineer, when I was a draftsman and engineering assistant. I’d had to draw and write specs for a lot of structures; we’ve both worked on structural forensics investigations. I know a fucking money pit when I see one.

              The decision not to invest in a more robust launch pad can be laid at Musk’s feet from what I hear

              Yeah. Quelle surprise.

              you seem to think that this loss is catastrophic for the development program

              Point to where I said that. The critical damage done, though, is to the trust NASA and taxpayers have in the Artemis program.

              And, I don’t appreciate the ad hominem attack on my capabilities.

              Man the fuck up, buddy. You’re getting what you gave. If I were going to indulge in ad hominems your parents’ ears would be ringing.

        • earlofhuntingdon says:

          Edison’s position was PR. He was an organizer and promoter as well as an inventor. He no more wanted a thousand failed light bulb designs that he wanted to lose a million dollars. But he made the failures work for him. El Mo has yet to demonstrate he has the same facility in dealing with engineering problems or PR.

          • Lika2know says:

            So, all of the failures in earlier Falcon development don’t count? I’m no Musk fan, but there’s been many a failure-before-success out of Space-X. How would YOU do PR for a prototype flight test that has a limited chance of perfection but a great chance of being useful short of perfection? Because it is the nature of this particular beast to be messy and hard to explain on the way to success. Would we all be better off with better PR but engineering slower to resolve? That’s the NASA model, which as you point out is a very expensive path. Space-X approach is more like Lockheed Skunkworks but without the secrecy shield of defense programs. And, it has radically changed the economics of launches.

            I believe it is possible to hold Musk in low esteem and still appreciate what Space-X has achieved.

            • bmaz says:

              Please go out to your carport, garage, whatever you have….pour five gallons of gas on your vehicle, light it on fire and then tell me what a success it all was.

              • Lika2know says:

                You lave been repeatedly advised by people with actual experience in rocket development programs that your interpretation of the recent launch was wrong. Time to put down your shovel.

                • bmaz says:

                  And you have repeatedly been advised you were engaging in dumbass semantics. Take your shovel and shove it straight up your ass. With your precious failing Muskrocket.

                  Gonna go out and cook some delicious pizza now. You carry on 30 commenter.

            • earlofhuntingdon says:

              “Perfection?” LOL. You’re the MBA, you seem to be doing well in the defensive marketing department. Your supportive statements about SpaceX seem divorced from the personality running it.

  26. earlofhuntingdon says:

    A new wrinkle about the confident, high-quality management at SpaceX and related companies. El Mo’s companies have imposed a host of non-disclosure agreements with state and local governments, shielding from public disclosure the companies’ operations and impact in South Texas, a business model commonly used by Elon Musk across his businesses.

    The NDAs contradict TPIA [the Texas Public Information Act] and “undermine taxpayers’ right to know how their money is spent.”

    The NDAs cover a variety of topics, including access to water rights, “ongoing development negotiations,” the closure of roads and access to public lands, environmental impacts, and “tax and/or financial incentives.”

    Andrew Case is senior counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a civil rights organization investigating SpaceX-related transparency concerns in Cameron County.

    Case said it’s “extremely unusual” for public entities to have NDAs with a private company, particularly one that operates on government contracts like SpaceX.


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