SpaceX’s Joyous Blowing Up of Rockets


Fighter pilots have a phrase—beyond visual range—to describe launching weapons against opponents they can’t see. I think of this every time I see one of Elon Musk’s edge-of-technology rocket tests, even the ones that blow up, as this one did last week at SpaceX’s test site in Texas.  Musk’s vision isn’t just beyond my visual range, it’s 30 million miles into the solar system, where Mars resides.

His stated reason for the Starship booster that exploded on landing Friday is to colonize Mars. Eventually. The lead elements of that bold step were supposed to sail as early as 2024. Fat chance, I’d say. But even Musk admits his timelines are sometimes fantasies and despite impressive achievements otherwise, SpaceX has, along with everyone else in the space biz, often busted the schedule. And to me, the overarching goal of terraforming and colonizing Mars as a kind of earth escape pod is daft. But then I’m hobbled by reality-based myopia.

But just sweep the Mars colony plan out of the way for a moment as so much noise and what do you have? You have a private company—OK, public with investors—developing a multibillion-dollar launch system that may or may not find a profitable market. Ignore that too and focus on where the Starship system is supposed to go developmentally. It’s nothing less than a reiteration of the Saturn V system that put men on the moon in 1969 and that required in totality, at times, up to 4 percent of the entire U.S. government’s budget.

The Saturn V system could launch 310,000 pounds into low earth orbit and it could put 90,000 pounds into lunar orbit. Eventually, SpaceX’s Starship—which will be two stages to orbit—will loft 330,000 pounds to LEO, according to the claims. NASA’s under-development Space Launch System will eventually reach 290,000 pounds. The Russian-developed Yenisei will have the same payload and the Chinese Long March 9 will match the Saturn V. The former is planned for 2030; the Chinese have no announced schedule.

SpaceX is way ahead of them and ahead of NASA’s SLS, which won’t fly until next year, if then. Moreover, the Starship is the only one that’s reusable, a design point that has become a SpaceX trademark and is now essentially routine. Wednesday’s test was a high-altitude trial of the Starship second stage, the bones of the actual vehicle that would land on Mars or carry heavy payloads to earth orbit. It has aerodynamic control surfaces which SpaceX calls flaps and it will have some kind of thermal system for atmospheric entry. Here’s a nice video wrapping up the developmental timeline.

Despite ending in a fire-filled crater, Wednesday’s test was quite an impressive success. The SpaceX-developed Raptor engines fired and re-ignited as they were supposed to, the Starship did its impressive flip maneuver for landing and would have stuck it except for low pressure in a header tank that caused reduced thrust and an out-of-bounds descent rate resulting in what Musk called “RUD”—rapid unscheduled disassembly.

Nonetheless, Musk tweeted this: “Successful ascent, switchover to header tanks and precise flap control to landing point … fuel header tank pressure was low during landing burn, causing touchdown velocity to be high & RUD, but we got all the data we needed!” For context, Musk had said earlier that a smoking hole was a likely outcome of this or other Starship tests. And for additional context, people in aerospace rarely say such things because they have teams of lawyers who sanitize public statements so as not to offend investors with a jolting dose of reality that might momentarily dent the stock price and tarnish the confection that everything is on plan. And never, ever allow a flash of gallows humor.

Never mind recovering boosters with perfect landings or rethinking the Saturn V, SpaceX’s towering achievement is enough unfettered and unfiltered visibility into how the sausage is made to inform the public to expect such things. It’s just how bleeding edge aeronautics has always worked as Otto Lilienthal revealed in his dying words: Sacrifices must be made. SpaceX is showing us that in real-time HD and it’s nearly as inspiring as Apollo was.

And anyway, I see in Musk and the SpaceX culture something immediately recognizable to me from that moment I got my first chemistry set: It has always been and will always be fun to blow s%$t up. If in the name of progress, so much the better.

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  1. While Mars does seem much further away than 2024, I think it’s often overlooked how powerful Musk’s vision for reshaping the near-Earth infrastructure is. A fully *rapidly* reusable launch system, truly land-load-and-go like an airliner, could legitimately reshape how humans live on (and near) Earth. Who needs Mars when you can get into orbit here? A sphere is just about the worst way to make use of all this mass we have here in terms of surface area to volume. Turning just tiny bits of the planet into orbiting habitats would be enough to increase the number of humans the Earth can support by a factor of hundreds, maybe even thousands.

    Couple that with welding the spacecraft together in a field in Texas rather than in the sterile environment of most aerospace assembly lines means the capital tied up in each booster and spaceship is vastly lower. Lose a few boosters in hard landings, no big deal. Just weld a new one together. The engines are another story, they’re probably the most complex rocket engines ever built. Maybe the SSME could compete, but I’m not sure. Scrapping a bunch of stainless steel tubes is one thing, but they can’t afford to lose engines in any meaningful amount. But as long as they can keep their landings in the realm of “good”, getting to and from space could really be within the realm of buying a first class plane ticket. Jury’s out on how well the average American body might handle the g-loads of launch and reentry, but that’s a problem for tomorrow.

    It’s a shame Musk himself is such a problematic character. Perhaps genius can’t come without some quirks. Being willing to fail publicly is such a nice change of tenor compered the usual secrecy of the space launch incumbents. Not to mention repeatedly embarassing Boeing and Lockheed for their comically slow pace and high cost of development. As a taxpayer, I’m all-in on Elon Musk.

    As an aside, did you hear that there’s something wrong with the first Orion spacecraft that will require de-mating it from its service module to access and repair? The de-mating and re-mating process is estimated to take twelve months or more, of course at the taxpayer’s expense. If Elon can kill the cost-plus space launch industry tomorrow, that’s taking too long.

    • I’m a fan, too. Not sure that the Raptor is the most complex engine ever built. SpaceX has at least 5 decades of rocketry engineering history to mine. The F1 suffered stability problems and the SSME blew up on the test stand at least a couple of times. So it certainly is a complex engine, and I’m not minimizing the development effort that the Raptor required, but I suspect that it was a more straight line path to operational readiness than many of the earlier large rocket programs.

      • It’s the first full-flow staged combustion engine that’s ever actually flown. My understanding is that making it work required some very bespoke metallurgy, beyond anything even the Russians did with their oxygen-rich staged combustion. That plus a chamber pressure pushing 300 bar is really something. And the first methane engine. Maybe any one of these things aren’t jaw-dropping, but all of them together, I think, is quite an accomplishment.

  2. Looking down the road not all that far, Homo Sap faces some real problems with both resource depletion & viable habitat supply, which together spell the end of the “endless” expansion our societies are based on. Unfortunately I seriously doubt Mars or artificial space colonies will prove to be much help. Possibly more promising is easing the crunch through the concept of finding critical raw material assets in the system’s constellation of orbiting bits & pieces, but first we have to get out there and find out if such exists in practical concentrations.

    Regardless, it would be the ultimate in foolishness to turn our backs on deep space without knowing for sure what it offers, and the only way to find out is to continue advancing our ability get out there easily and affordably. So go, Musk, go!

  3. It wasn’t that long ago that people were shaking their heads and muttering about him being crazy to think he could even land a booster on shore, let alone on a floating barge. But this weekend, while SpaceX was still sweeping up the debris in South Texas, they launched another Dragon rocket carrying a SiriusXM satellite into orbit. Although it barely made the news, this was the seventh use of that booster, which landed successfully on the recovery barge for reuse an eighth time. So, in less than a decade, reusable boosters have become so routine that a commercial customer was comfortable entrusting a multi-hundred million dollar satellite to one. Musk may not make the 2024 deadline for a Mars mission, but I would bet that Starship launches and recoveries will have also become routine. As for Musk being a problematic character, compared with similar visionaries like Thomas Edison, Nikolai Tesla or Howard Hughes, he is a pretty ordinary guy.

  4. As a Starship Captain, born 500 years too soon, I am as excited about what SpaceX is doing as a kid on Christmas Eve. I have watch every launch and recovery from the first times the Falcons crashed in the ocean. If I could have one wish, it would be to be 40 years younger with my flying experience and flying the Dragons into space. Oh well.

  5. One of the reasons this SpaceX fan-boy just moved the Piper Cub, the wife, cats and home across the state to Titusville this past summer is to be closer to the rockets and people on the Space Coast. Can hardly wait to see coming attractions during the next few years.
    Bonus: there’s also a vibrant grass roots aviation community here also.

  6. It looks like there are at least 3 individuals in AVWEB as “Tom C”. it would be great to have a unique identifier for each. I worked on Aircraft and Space projects in the Gov’t sector for 42 years and believe me, it IS Rocket Science! The average individual who sees a prototype craft get destroyed has no conception of the number of critical single failure points that can occur on a Space vehicle. I worked on thrust vector actuators for Shuttle and missiles. For Shuttle , the “brain” of the actuator was quad-redundant. I can only imagine how much more complex it is for a re-usable rocket! Even back then, we re-used SRB actuators after they were recovered from salt water, then reconditioned and tested. There is a lot of testing, design decisions and manufacturing variables that enter into production. And that’s why it is so damn expensive, especially in small quantities. And thats why prototypes are tested extensively, often to destruction, to obtain precious data. Tom C- BUFFALO