SpaceX Loses Starship SN11


Elon Musk’s SpaceX continues to test its unmanned Starship, with SN11 launching from a foggy Texas tower this morning. As with other Starship launches, this one ended with the vehicle in pieces. Fog complicated visualizing the stream of events; the launch appeared to go off as planned, but the video feed from SpaceX froze at 5 minutes and 49 seconds as the ship was less than 1 km from landing, and as one of the three Raptor engines had reignited as part of the normal landing sequence. The next instant, ground cameras picked up debris falling to the ground to the sound of a thousand trash cans being dropped off the roof. 

On Twitter, Musk said, “Something significant happened shortly after landing burn start. Should know what it was once we can examine the bits later today.” And: “At least the crater is in the right place.”

The flight was delayed because, according to Musk, ”FAA inspector unable to reach Starbase in time for launch today. Postponed to no earlier than tomorrow.” Dense fog at the Boca Chica, Texas, site made it difficult to see what had happened during the final-descent phase.

We’ll update this story as details are released.

One of the three Raptor engines throttling up for the landing of Starship SN11 today. The video feed stopped here and the next images were of debris hitting the ground. (NASA video)
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KITPLANES Editor in Chief Marc Cook has been in aviation journalism for more than 30 years. He is a 4000-hour instrument-rated, multi-engine pilot with experience in nearly 150 types. He’s completed two kit aircraft, an Aero Designs Pulsar XP and a Glasair Sportsman 2+2, and currently flies a 2002 GlaStar.

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      • I kinda question his whole approach. Launching with dead weight (the fuel for earth landing) is terribly inefficient. Re-entry with fuel on board is really high risk. It’s as if Elon is disregarding physics and the lessons learned by 1960’s space pioneers.

        • Efficiency is very much a secondary goal – and a red herring. Expendable rockets are technically more efficient, until you take into account the airframe!
          And carrying fuel on re-entry is NOT high risk. Even STS did this (OMS monoprop).

          • “Until you take into account the airframe …” What? Gonna gues we should probably take that into account. Economic efficiency is the only thing worth considering, and it turns out that the landing fuel load is amazingly small.

      • Actually Edison was a jackass. Miserable person antisemite with obvious psychiatric illness. His success was predicated more on mania and obsessive work ethic than any sort of brilliance.

        A good analogy for Musk as it turns out.

  1. From can can be seen (not much) and heard (some), it appears the Flight Termination System ended the flight, thus the steel confetti. Presumably this indicates that the vehicle was heading out of limits in some respect.

    SN11 was the last of the current series of Starships, and while they certainly DID want it to land intact (and remain intact *cough SN10 *cough*), they’ve learned enough with this series that they scrapped SN12, 13 and 14 and are proceeding to the next block upgrade with SN15.
    SN20 is reportedly a further upgrade with orbital capability, and Elon has already noted that they expect to lose several of that series perfecting re-entry, so expect the fireworks to continue through 2021!

    • I agree. As a former flight test pilot I wonder why not wait until clear weather. We had rules in flight test about first flights including VMC. The point of flight test is data collection and video data is often the most important stream; such as the Challenger accident.

      • That was my first thought when I heard they were testing in the fog… ‘what are these guys thinking.’
        NASA has had rockets that could be reused for many decades now. These guys are trying to reinvent the wheel and failing at it.

      • Don’t forget that we now have the ability to plant numerous cameras on the vehicle itself which provide close-up, clear views which are too close to be affected by foggy conditions.

        [Imagine if the Columbia had been so fitted – the damage caused by the foam would have been obvious.]

  2. As a friend will say – the entertainment continues.

    I wouldn’t go near his work, he patches and experiments again – but I question whether or not he learns solidly. You have to learn and record that learning to remind yourself, otherwise you will only have software that ‘appears to work’ – witness the variable behaviour of Microsloppy Windows which has flipped backward on some features.

  3. There appeared to be leaks around the engine couplings, that flared multiple times during ascent. Is it possible that, after third engine shutdown, the leaks continued into the engine bay, forming a cloud of vapors, which ignited violently upon re-ignition of the landing motor?

    • @Kit Good catch. A big leak presented itself at 2:15:13 in the video. You may have also uncovered the cause of the post-landing explosion on SN10. If SN10 had the same leak, that would have built up a similar cloud of vapors looking for an ignition source.