I’ve held off a bit noting the Starship Launch Failure. Wanted to give the news a little time to settle. Even with his now-weakened Reality Distortion Field, King Elmo still gets special treatment by the press.
The tech aspects are covered in depth elsewhere, but so far the basic knowns are:
- The test flight was terminated by the range safety officer a little over 4 minutes into the flight.
- The root cause is currently suspected to be an improperly designed launchpad (more on that aspect, later).
- The novel second-stage separation method (no bolts) also failed. It is currently unclear if this was a second-order failure, linked to the first one… or a distinct second failure of its own.
Basically the 30+ engine rocket blasted bits & chunks of its own launchpad up to a quarter-mile away, with some of the bits & chunks popping up into the engines and taking out somewhere between 5-8 of those rocket engines right away. Conventional launch pads (including those used by SpaceX’s other vehicles) are fitted with dug trenches, water reservoirs, high-volume sprayers etc to both cool down the rocket engines and to absorb some of that acoustic energy. The reason this wasn’t done for Starship? King Elmo countermanded his own engineers.
I’ve been involved with various space projects over the past three decades, but for this note-to-self I want to focus on the mainstream and social media responses, instead. Most of the fawning press is spinning it as a “Successful Failure!” so hard that it gives me vertigo. (Imagine if last year’s SLS launch had failed half as badly. What do you think those headlines would have looked like?). More curious, to me: The destruction of the one and only launchpad available for Starship testing (1) Wasn’t reported until almost two days later and (2) totally invalidates any pro-SpaceX spin. “Learning from Failure” is a big part of Engineering. “Destroying your Basic Development Infrastructure while Testing”… well, no, not so much.
In Reality, this was a Soviet-level failure (though mercifully no one was killed). It will be months, perhaps over a year, before another Starship test launch is possible. There’s also the question of what role FAA and/or NASA will take in ‘forcing’ SpaceX to build a proper launchpad, up to modern practical and regulatory standards.
Very few people out there also seem to realize that this puts HLS in jeopardy. NASA –very uncharacteristically I might add– put all of its eggs into the Starship basket, and with this failure the December 2025 date becomes impossible to meet safely. There is no backup lunar lander being funded. And for all the online sneering, SLS/Orion is well on-track to be ready long before any lunar lander.
Twitter, on the other hand, proves the weak spot in King Elmo’s Reality Distortion Field (like the South Atlantic Anomaly!). Twitter Blue having failed, he gave up and issued checkmarks to a number of high-profile/high-follower accounts (most of whom then loudly protested). As any Bird Site Visitor would know, irritating that den of shitposters is akin to walloping a wasp’s nest with a wiffle ball bat… It hasn’t gone well for the site owner.
And I’ll just say it out loud: This doesn’t say much for our current “Space Press”. If a $2 Billion dollar rocket explosion that destroyed the only launchpad on launch doesn’t break the Musky Fever there, I don’t really know what will.
Be seeing you…