SpaceX made headlines last week with the launch of Starship, the world’s strongest rocket. The rocket, which was nearly 400 feet high when it was fully stacked, lifted off the launch pad, reached a height of 25 miles four minutes later, and then exploded.
The test flight was generally hailed as successful despite the explosive event, since the rocket managed to reach the air. The explosion was certainly impressive. The damage to the Starbase facility at Boca Chica in Texas is far greater than expected.
Residents and environmentalists have also complained about environmental damage in the area. Starship has been grounded until the Federal Aviation Administration can conduct an investigation.
The damage caused by the launch was far greater than expected
According to Phil Metzger of the University of Central Florida, who worked for NASA on research into launch pads, the failure of the pad was “catastrophic.” Images of the facility after the launch reveal blackened structures, concrete chunks missing, and an enormous crater on the ground. The destruction of launch pad created a cloud of debris and dust that spread from the facility. Some of it even struck a nearby vehicle.
Metzger, said that launch pads are just as complicated as rockets. The concrete that forms the launch pad at Boca Chica, Fondag material, cracked because of the heat and force from the rocket engines. Gasses from the rocket engines were then expelled into the cracks, which caused them to fracture further.
The debris struck at least one vehicle close to the pad. This was within the “hazard zone” of the rocket. The hazard zone is the area that has been cleared to ensure safety along the rocket’s flight path.
Metzger stated that a car being struck by debris in this area was “not crazy – that’s okay”. You don’t want that to happen but it’s why you have a “blast danger zone”.
Metzger stated that the debris hitting a vehicle in this area was “not crazy – it’s okay.”
This is because the disintegrated pad caused the dirt underneath the concrete to erode, causing large amounts of dust. The dust spread over several miles away from the launch area. The dust could be dangerous to nearby communities and the environment.
Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, addressed this problem by stating that the team previously discussed a water-cooled plate as a way to distribute heat from the launch over the pad and avoid erosion of concrete. The heat generated by the engines can be dispersed using channels cut into a steel sheet and water pushed through.
Metzger stated that “in principle, this should prevent the steel from melting.”
SpaceX, however, decided to proceed without the steel plate. Based on a static fire test where the Starship engines were at 50% capacity, the engineers assumed that the concrete launch pad would last at least one flight. The mistake by SpaceX has been criticised. Commentators speculate that Starship had to be pushed into a test flight before the launchpad was ready.
Musk said that the company would now install a plate of steel at the launch pad and then try for another launch in the next two months. SpaceX didn’t respond to requests for comments, but in a post on its website posted shortly after the launch the company stated, “With tests like this, we learn from what we do, and today we learned an enormous amount about the vehicle, ground systems, that will help us to improve future flights of Starship.”
Musk’s optimistic timeline for the next Starship flight may be longer, but the Starship won’t be able fly again until an FAA investigation into the launch mishap is completed.
SpaceX must ask for a modification of its license in order to launch additional rockets. In a statement sent to The Verge, the FAA explained that it evaluates modifications against regulations in order to ensure public safety. The FAA must determine that the system, process or procedure involved in the accident does not compromise public safety before allowing the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle to return to flight.
Starship won’t be able fly again until an FAA investigation into a mishap is completed
The destruction of the launchpad could have caused a second issue, in addition to safety concerns: five to eight of the Raptor engines did not appear to be firing during various moments of the rocket’s rise. The cause of these engine failures is unknown, but ejecta from the launch pad destruction could have caused them to malfunction.
Metzger stated that he was always concerned about ejecta hitting rocket nozzles, as they are the most vulnerable part of the rocket. Metzger said that if debris struck a rocket nozzle in an unfortunate way, it could lead to catastrophic engine failure.
When ejecta destroys an engine, it can have a serious impact, since one engine can cause a chain reaction that causes other engines to blow up. Rockets that explode immediately after launch can cause damage on the ground. SpaceX is fortunate the Starship lasted high in the air before it exploded. Metzger stated, “To be honest I think it could’ve been worse.”
Metzger stated, “To be honest I think it could have gotten a lot worse.”
SpaceX stated that the mere fact of getting off the ground was a success. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said that this approach was implicitly endorsed. He stated in a press release following the launch, “Every great accomplishment throughout history demanded a certain level of calculated risks, because great risk brings great reward.”
The launch pad deteriorating so much that dirt was blown up into the air from underneath the concrete is an important and unexpected issue. Residents in Port Isabel complained about broken windows, shook buildings and dust falling on their town.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets standards for particulate matter in the air. Particulate matter is known to cause respiratory problems and other illnesses. A spokesperson for Port Isabel , however, told The New York Times there was “no immediate concern for people’s safety.”
CNBC reported that environmental experts have raised concerns about the effect of the debris and noise from the launch on wildlife populations.
SpaceX’s tolerance for risk has allowed it to make impressive strides in areas such as reusable rockets. However, its aggressive approach has led it into conflict in the past with safety-oriented organizations like the FAA. The decision to test the Starship rocket quickly may have been a good business decision, based on its success in getting it off the ground. However, the environmental impact of this test must still be taken into consideration.
Metzger stated that it was their decision whether or not to explode their rocket. As long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or the environment.