SpaceX seemed to experience a setback this Thursday when the inaugural test flight of its Starship rocket ended in a fiery explosion. Four minutes after it lifted off, the rocket exploded after traveling 24 miles. Multiple engines went out, according to SpaceX, leading the rocket to lose altitude and begin to tumble. After it went off course, the company forced both the rocket and the accompanying booster — which did not separate properly — to self-destruct.
SpaceX, however, doesn’t necessarily see this test as a failure, a view that underscores how it’s approaching this field and putting an emphasis on experimentation. “With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today,” SpaceX posted in a statement after the explosion.
“Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson added in a tweet.
While too many consecutive failures or an ill-timed one could doom a commercial space company — see: Virgin Orbit’s rocket failure earlier this year — experts in the field have largely agreed this rocket launch helped provide important lessons that SpaceX engineers can apply to future trips. The Starship is intended to help transport astronauts as part of NASA’s upcoming lunar mission in 2025, with a broader goal of ultimately bringing people to other planets, like Mars. It’s the largest rocket ever made and is intended to one day carry as many as 100 people.
This is the moment SpaceX's Starship - the biggest and most powerful rocket ever built - launched, and then failed before completing its full test.— The Associated Press (@AP) April 20, 2023
No people or satellites were aboard. https://t.co/DpnSfSGuZn pic.twitter.com/GEYKokG2B7
It’s a “huge success,” Scott Bailey, a director at Virginia Tech’s Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, told Vox of the test. “If you go back to Apollo, before we put men on the moon ... they launched about 100 rockets before they were confident to put people on there. This is just how it works.”
What exactly is a “successful failure” in rocket science?
A so-called “successful failure” is one where important lessons can be gleaned for future tests and where the risks of harm are low, experts say.
Since it began, SpaceX has taken a “fail fast, but learn faster” approach, a process that has involved multiple tests of its now-successful Falcon 9 boosters that resulted in explosions, for example. Its pace and agility differ from that of the government and other traditional aerospace companies, and its willingness to embrace failing publicly means that SpaceX can move quickly and learn quickly.
“Government programs are not allowed to operate that way ... because of the way we have all the stakeholders being able to watch over and tell you no,” Daniel Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, told the New York Times. Experimentation isn’t unique to SpaceX — it’s a foundational aspect of science — but Bailey notes that SpaceX is able to operate more swiftly and with less aversion to risk.
“If SpaceX realizes that something is wrong, they can really rapidly fix it and move on,” Garrett Reisman, a USC astronautical engineering professor and SpaceX adviser told ABC News Australia. noting that the company has more rockets in the hangar to refine for future tests. Garrett also says that the company conducts these experiments in scenarios where there’s little potential for harm. The Federal Aviation Administration has said that it will investigate the Starship explosion and that it has not received reports of injuries or public property damage.
Key lessons from this rocket launch are likely to center on the engine malfunction and the failure of the booster to properly separate from the rocket. Of its 33 engines, three failed to light, Reisman told ABC News Australia. And by the time the rocket was in flight, it wound up short six engines. Addressing that issue will be a major step for the next iteration of the rocket.
Additionally, there are questions about why the booster did not properly separate from the rocket as intended. That could have been due to the rocket traveling at a lower altitude and through thicker air than expected, or another mechanical failure, says Reisman. After two and a half minutes, the booster was due to separate and drop into the ocean, with the rocket continuing into space on its own.
All told, SpaceX now has significant information on the launch of the rocket and on how it performed even though the mission did not come to fruition. “It’s really tons of data,” says Bailey. “They are going to be spending months looking at data. There’s going to be a great deal of learning to come from this.”
Most importantly, he notes, SpaceX was able to see how all the components and systems of the rocket worked together in practice, something that’s impossible to predict even with sophisticated computer models. “This rocket, but any rocket that big, is a complicated system of systems,” he says. “To test how they all work together, you have to actually do it.”