SpaceX Launch – Mission Deemed A Success, Despite Re-Entry Failure

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Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starship launched successfully at 9:25 a.m. EST today (March 14). But controllers lost contact with the orbital flight about an hour into the mission. At about 10:40 EST, the New York Times reported that SpaceX acknowledged the orbiter did not survive re-entry but declared the launch successful from the standpoint of mission accomplishments.

The “Super Heavy” (SpaceX’s name) booster, designed to propel future space flights to the Moon, “performed beautifully” according to SpaceX, and successfully separated about three minutes into the flight at 100 kilometers’ altitude. The separation was executed by a critical “hot staging” maneuver that involved shutting down all but three Raptor engines.

The booster then descended for an attempted “soft splashdown” in the Gulf of Mexico using six engines and thrust vectoring. Video of the booster’s descent cut out during the descent and the fate of the booster is unknown at press time. But SpaceX commentators declared the flight a success from the standpoint of the booster’s performance in launch and getting as far into the controlled landing phase as it did.

The New York Times reported that even before the Starship completed one orbit, SpaceX has three private astronaut missions booked. The first will be led by entrepreneur and space enthusiast Jared Isaacman, who previously purchased an orbital trip aboard a Falcon 9 rocket. The second and third missions, to be led by Japanese entrepreneur Yasaku Maezawa and Dennis Tito (the first private individual to purchase a trip to the International Space Station), are planned to travel to the Moon and back.

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Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

37 COMMENTS

    • It reached orbital velocity-plus and executed a de-orbit burn. Technically, it WAS “in orbit” – just not a full orbit (circumference).

  1. So the ship blows up but because it launched it is called a success. I see.

    My analogy as a physician would be if a person died in the recovery room after an otherwise uneventful appendectomy we would call that a success.

    Yeah, right.

    • Poor analogy. Nobody died, there was no actual payload on board. This was a “let’s see if it works” test.

      Remember, SpaceX doesn’t operate on the traditional “gotta get it perfect the first time” model everyone else uses. They go out and test full scale hardware in flight when everyone else would still be running ground tests and analysis, and they are willing to accept a few lost test vehicles in the process, betting that in the end they will spend less time and money to get a successful product than the usual method of doing everything humanly possible to make sure it works the first try. It seems to be working pretty well for them.

      They’re able to do this because they get ridiculous amounts of telemetry on every flight and can build the hardware faster and cheaper than anyone else. They aren’t worried about losing a crew or all their data if the vehicle is lost; the vehicle isn’t so insanely expensive that they can’t risk losing it. And they aren’t concerned about shareholders, management, and Congress getting their undergarments bunched up if things don’t go perfectly the first try–they figure out what went wrong, make changes, and roll the next vehicle out to the pad.

    • It’s called development. During the development process things don’t always go as planned. SpaceX is learning a lot from the data they collect, they make adjustments and do more testing. If you’re not breaking anything during development you’re not learning anything.

      • No, it’s called not ready. How many Saturn V launches failed, manned or unmanned. Here’s a clue: zero. And they did it with 1960s engineering and materials. How much more Kool-Aid can you drink?

        • Thatis the wrong question. by the time the Saturn V was ready mamny of the issues had been worked out and reliability was way up.
          The question is how many failures were there before the first manned flight.
          The answer was many. There are videos you can watch and history you can read if you are inclined to.
          The running joke at the time was “Our rockets always blow up”.

        • You’re assessing the wrong figure of merit for defining a successful program. “Number of flights until everything works perfectly” sounds great and common thought says that number should be “one”.
          SpaceX is working towards “Number of DAYS until everything works perfectly”. They may fly nine flights and lose eight–but it’ll still be done a lot sooner (YEARS sooner) than trying for the first goal.

          There’s an (apocryphal?) story about there being signs at NASA during the moon race, stating “waste anything but time”. SpaceX has taken that to heart, and is quite happy to “waste” a few flights and hundreds of engines to get the vehicle flying sooner.

    • Not sure what you mean “blown up”? Space X stated up front that they NEVER expected to recover either the booster or the ship. The booster performed its job and splashed down as did the ship after reaching its goal. Since they did lose communications with the ship on reentry (as all spacecraft do) Space X does not know exactly how the end came. But even then, the ship was NEVER meant to survive or be recovered.

    • Hyperbole is not unique to SpaceX or to Mr. Musk. Most of the mission went well, but not completely. I remember that, after a crash on a landing attempt of an early rocket, he said that the flight went well; the crater is in the right place.
      During the development of the Space Shuttle, there was testimony before Congress that the chances of losing a shuttle were one in a thousand, and the program was planned for less than a thousand flights, so all should survive. Well, two losses at something like 104 flights wasn’t quite one in a thousand, more like one in 50.
      It’s a risky business. It’s also a business that promotes itself.

  2. Also while in space they successfully completed an onboard propellant transfer demonstration for NASA.

    It appears attitude control failed, preventing the in-space relight test and resulting in tumbling reentry.
    But the live video from reentry! Spectacular!

  3. I keep hoping someone will ask the astronauts scheduled to fly on that thing if they define “success” the same way Elmo does. You know, things like complete and survive the mission. Little stuff like that.

    NASA tested the Saturn rockets when they were ready. When did acceptable engineering practice become “let’s keep launching till they don’t fail”?

    It’s mind-boggling the contortions some people get into in order to slurp Elmo because to them, he can do nothing wrong, no matter how publicly and obviously he does things wrong. Just because he wants to launch rockets does not excuse everything else he does, but his flatulence sniffers all think he his racism, fascism, etc are A-OK with them.

    • I admire NASA and still do today but when Space X first proposed their idea of reusable rockets and landing the boosters for reuse, NASA said it would never work and denigrated their ideas and methods. I think everyone can agree today, who was correct and who was not. While I still admire NASA, they lost some of my respect over and I started to recognize them as the paperwork, risk-averse, and administrative-bound government organization that it was. While some good ideas still come out of NASA, it is not the energetic, adventurous, idea-driven organization it was in earlier times.

      Space X rockets, design methods, and testing have been spectacularly successful. I think if you ask the dozen or so astronauts who have flown to and from the ISS on Space X Falcon 9s and Dragons, you would get a thumbs up!

      • I get what you’re saying about NASA, but would encourage you to cut them a little more slack. Let’s recall that their protocols were forged at a time when no one believed we could launch humans into space and there little support for trying. We were also in a race with Russia for national pride, everything had to be as perfect as possible. If their ships blew up with the regularity of Space X they would have lost government funding, and public support. It was a different time. I still believe in NASA and their partnerships with Musk and Bezos show they have adapted.
        So many of the things we take for granted in our daily lives and in aviation came from the innovation and gratuity of NASA.

    • Many years ago I worked on a space program in which the first success was with number 13. No one died but the first 12 were expensive learning points.

    • As an engineer I support the SpaceX approach because I realize that real live test data in a real environment beats the pants off simulations and analyses.

      For every test you have some level of confidence that it’s going to work the way you want. Almost everyone is willing to accept lower confidence tests at the component/lab/test stand level. But when you get to all-up vehicles, everyone (save SpaceX) demands very high confidence–they can’t afford multiple failures because their funding will dry up, and their vehicles are super-expensive (because they’re typically gold-plated and hand-built to maximize performance and ensure perfect reliability). SpaceX is willing to accept lower test confidence because the funding source is willing to eat the cost, and they can build the rockets (and their engines) FAR cheaper than anyone else.

      It truly is cheaper and faster to go the SpaceX way. Crude and inelegant perhaps, but it works. If you go back and look at when SpaceX was learning to land boosters, they realized they needed some sort of reentry protection. Their solution was to light off the rockets pointing into the wind. NASA was working on plans to test then on rocket sleds, then on some small demonstrator before flying full-scale. SpaceX just said “we’re tossing a booster off anyway, so let’s try it out–maybe it’ll work!” They tried it, and it worked, long before NASA even built any hardware.

      Remember also, a huge driver in the development and expense for this program is trying to make a REUSABLE rocket. The

    • Looks like you have a severe case of MDS there Jeff. Being green with envy at least has you the right color for Saint Patrick’s Day.

  4. Jeff… In all due respect, you may be unaware or perhaps just forgetting a few details when you make the statement that NASA tested the Saturn rockets when they were “ready.” Grissom, White and Chaffee lost their lives when they burnt up on the pad in a pure oxygen environment in a vehicle with a hatch that took 90 seconds to open. Apollo 13 limped home by the grace of God and the ingenuity of a team of brilliant engineers. The astronauts onboard STS-51-L (Challenger) and STS-107 (Columbia) weren’t as lucky. So you can point to just the Apollo program if you wish and we’ll only count three dead individuals or we can include the “ready” Space Shuttle program and add another 14. The point is, despite your obvious disdain and disrespect for the man, and the way he conducts his business, he’s a dreamer, an “out of the box” thinker, a modern day industrialist, and his innovations have had an impact on all of humanity. And how many souls has SpaceX lost? You know the number. So you call him “Elmo” if you like but I’ll recognize him as Elon.

    • Absolutely correct. Jeff is apparantly unaware of NASA’s many devvelpmental failures (i.e. launch explosions) and had apparantly forgotten the numereous fatalities you mentioned.

  5. This rocket is going through the same development process as the Falcon 9 and its success is undeniable. The Falcon 9 has flown dozens of successful missions to date and at least a dozen astronauts have been sent to ISS along with dozens of successful ISS resupply missions. How many has Boeing done while following the old way of doing things – zero!

    I admire NASA but if they had been as risk-averse, paperwork-bound, and afflicted with analysis paralysis in the 1960s as they are today, we would have never made it into space much less to the moon in the 1960s.

    The Space x development methods seem hazardous in this risk-averse world but in the end, where it counts – it works very well.

    • SpaceX has launched 50+ astronauts now.

      Falcon9 has flown over 300 times, most of which (280+) have successfully landed the booster for reuse.

      Those that claim SpaceX is a dangerous or untrustworthy launch provider are willingly ignorant.

  6. NASA attempts to identify every possible failure point, then engineer the risk of those failures to a very low probability of occurrence before the first launch. The goal being that the first launch has a very high probability of success. SpaceX has a rapid prototyping approach. Build it, launch it, see what breaks, fix that, and launch it again. 15 years ago it was far from obvious whether NASA’s approach or the SpaceX approach was best. But common wisdom bet on NASA. At this point, it has become clear that the SpaceX approach is faster, cheaper, and produces a better tested, more reliable result. The Falcon 9 has flown 288 successful missions in a row, (including a few missions which accomplished all mission objectives, but at the end of which the vehicle was lost in landing mishaps, preventing it’s reuse).

  7. Launched from a federal facility that costs American taxpayers billions. It is time to sell off the Cape, privatize all non-defense space activities and see what, if any, survives in a true free market.

    • I think if you investigate, you will find that Space X, Blue Origin, ULA and others all have leases through which they pay NASA for the use of launch facilities. The users also maintain and update the facilities they use at their expense.

      You would be correct that if NASA and the government were the only ones launching from the Cape, it would be a huge expense to the taxpayers. Space X probably launches more in two months than NASA does in a year. I am sure that the commercial launches cut the taxpayer’s costs considerably.

      • Even more so – NASA has one rocket, the SLS. It has launched once (unmanned).
        Previous to that, the last orbital mission for a NASA operated vehicle was the Shuttle, last flown in 2011.

  8. “Launched from a federal facility that costs American taxpayers billions.”

    You’re probably thinking of Cape Canaveral in Florida, where NASA hangs out. But this flight launched from SpaceX’s privately owned Texas facility.

  9. NASA had many failures in the early days. Story goes that the way a NASA engineer taught his son to count was “ten…nine…eight…seven…six…five…four…three…two…dammit!”

  10. Both NASA and SaceX learn from failures, the difference is SpaceX makes money off of the failures whereas NASA does not and guess who pays for it?

    • If SpaceX does end up making money off of the failures, it will only be when a future customer pays for a successful launch. If the “failures” result in a successful launch product in less time or less money than the other choice (that being more-perfect but more expensive and slower ground testing) then those eventual customers will actually SAVE money. Even if they are us (tax payers).

  11. You guys forget this is the biggest rocket with the most thrust ever. It made its launch and successfully launched its sub orbital vehicle, The mission is a complete success for what they wanted to see, the rest was gravy. As an Engineer myself, every test is a learning experience and I have not had a single test that I have not learned from.

  12. Think what you will about these entrepreneurs’ personalities…it’s admirable to me that they’re investing their resources to further space exploration. I hope through their efforts to re-live the excitement of that evening on July 20, 1969 when the next cadre of brave explorers set foot on Mars!

  13. I find it bizarre that so many presumably technically knowledgeable people are automatically poo-pooing any test that didn’t conclude with a flawless performance. “Breaking things”, i.e. throwing it out there into the real world and then fixing problems that emerge, is a perfectly valid development technique and has been a key factor in SpaceX’s ability to condense years of development into months.

    Perhaps they are kids, too young to recall that during our early efforts at rocketry if you got one successful launch out of four or five it was considered a resounding success 🙂

  14. I understand that the most realistic testing of orbital launch systems in development requires an actual launch. So far I don’t think anyone has been seriously harmed by any of these ‘test’ launches. Maybe the chances of boosters destroying themselves at 1,500 ft over the Gulf of Mexico are such a small risk that it was worth the launch. Or maybe it would be prudent to do more advanced ground testing in safe test areas?

    • NASA in Florida and SpaceX in Texas have their launch facilities next to the ocean for a reason – the water IS their test area. It has no permanent human residents and any visitors can easily be spotted and relocated prior to a launch. Also, the ocean will not have urban sprawl springing up in the future to encroach on the launch area. Both NASA and SpaceX have launch trajectories plotted in advance so that they can advise boaters to stay out of the area, thus making the possibility of rocket debris falling on humans extremely remote. Keeping a land area clear would be much more difficult and require huge tracts of land. Blue Origin is dealing with that in their west Texas launch facilities. The oceans are very large, virtually unpopulated and you can use them rent free.

  15. It seems like a lot of commentators here are combining multiple different factors into one.

    Whether you like Elon or not (I think he’s a terrible person), he has had some great business ideas, the most relevant here being SpaceX. There’s no denying that SpaceX has accomplished some pretty amazing things, but like any company, they aren’t perfect.

    Way back in the early days, the US space program once did the type of “rapid prototyping and see if it works or how it fails” development that SpaceX is doing today. But since NASA and all of the other organizations that consisted of the early space program were all government-funded, they had to consider public support and how a failure would look bad to a mostly-non-engineering public. Also, NASA deserves a lot more respect than some people here give them because they literally invented space operations, and had to figure out a lot of things along the way. Even the concept of a “mission control” was invented by NASA (or at least, what would eventually become NASA).

    As a private company, SpaceX can do things the way the old NASA did, and the failures teach them more than a perfect first launch would, just as a flight instructor would prefer to see their student make mistakes pre-solo with them on board so they can see how they behave in failure.

    Hate Elon all you want, and maybe even SpaceX as a company too, but you still have to admire some of their successes from an engineering perspective.

  16. Trailblazers in Rocketry: A Legacy of Experimentation

    After reading the comments on the latest SpaceX launches, I was intrigued by how two of the most prominent rocket scientists from history might view SpaceX’s trial-and-error practice. Would they approve? So, here’s what I found.

    The history of rocketry is a fascinating journey marked by innovation, adaptation, and the unwavering pursuit of space exploration. Three key figures/entities stand out in American rocketry: Robert H. Goddard, Wernher von Braun, and SpaceX, each tackling the challenge with distinct approaches, yet all sharing a core principle – trial and error.

    Goddard: The Father of Modern Rocketry

    Era: Early 1900s – Limited resources and rudimentary technology.

    Approach: Pioneered liquid-fueled rockets through relentless experimentation.

    Similarities: Like SpaceX, he emphasized learning from failures and iterating on his designs.

    Differences: Relied heavily on trial-and-error due to limited theoretical knowledge and computational power.

    Accomplishment: Built the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, laying the foundation for future advancements.

    Von Braun: Bridging the Gap

    Era: Mid-20th century – Increased resources and focus on systematic development.
    Approach: Benefited from Goddard’s groundwork and led the development of the V-2 rocket in Germany.

    Similarities: Inspired by Goddard and valued the hands-on experience gained through experimentation.

    Differences: Had access to more resources and a larger team, enabling a more systematic approach compared to Goddard’s individual efforts. Data analysis, however, wasn’t as sophisticated as modern methods.

    Accomplishment: Developed the V-2 rocket, a significant leap forward that later paved the way for US space exploration.

    SpaceX: Ushering in a New Era

    Era: 21st century – Advanced technology, data-driven approach, and rapid prototyping.

    Approach: Employs rapid prototyping, iterative design, and extensive data analysis to refine their rockets.

    Similarities: Shares with Goddard and von Braun a willingness to experiment and learn from failures.

    Differences: Leverages cutting-edge technology for faster development cycles and more sophisticated data analysis.

    Accomplishment: Pioneered reusable rockets, drastically reducing launch costs and revolutionizing space exploration.

    Trial-and-Error: A Timeless Thread. Despite the vast technological advancements separating these figures, trial and error remains a common thread. Goddard’s relentless experimentation paved the way. Von Braun built upon that foundation with a more systematic approach. Today, SpaceX leverages advanced technology to enhance the core principle of trial-and-error.

    In conclusion, SpaceX’s success might be seen as an acceptance of the pragmatism employed by both Goddard and von Braun. By embracing experimentation and learning from failures, these pioneers laid the groundwork for the remarkable achievements in rocketry we witness today. The future of space exploration undoubtedly holds exciting possibilities, built upon the foundation established through trial-and-error. Elon Musk and company got it right with trial-and-error!

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