On April 29, SpaceX founder Chief Engineer Elon Musk hosted a live ‘Twitter Spaces’ call with his ‘Subscribers’ during which he discussed what happened during SpaceX’s Starship 4/20 (April 20) launch and provided a brief glimpse of future improvements for the next test flight. TESMANIAN listened to his discussion to share some key takeaways.
The 4/20 Starship flight attempt to orbit was incredible to watch, the stainless-steel rocket-ship soared 39 kilometers above the Starbase launch site and exploded midair. Later, SpaceX revealed that the flight ended with a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly (RUD) 4 minutes into flight because multiple of the 33 Raptor V2 engines shut down, then SpaceX caused the vehicle to self-destruct by commanding the rocket’s Flight Termination System (FTS) as soon as it noticed it was steering off course. “The outcome was roughly in (line) with what I expected and, maybe slightly exceeded my expectations, but roughly what I expected, which is that we would get clear of the pad,” said Musk during the Twitter Spaces chat. From an engineering standpoint, the launch was a success because it lifted off the launch pad and enabled SpaceX to collect crucial data to advance the rocket’s development. “[...] It was actually good to get this vehicle off the ground because we've made so many improvements” in Super Heavy Booster 9 “and beyond,” he said. “Really just needed to fly this vehicle and then move on to the much improved booster.” Booster 9 will be the next test vehicle to attempt propelling Starship to orbit. Starbase engineers have already manufactured multiple stainless-steel vehicles that will perform test flights at Boca Chica Beach, Texas.
Musk revealed that SpaceX did not ignite all 33 Raptor V2 engines on the booster during Starship’s 4/20 launch attempt –“There were 3 engines that we chose not to start,” he said, adding that 30 engines, “is the minimum number of engines” needed for lift off. These engines “didn't explode,” but were just not “healthy enough to bring them to full thrust so they were shut down,” he said during the Twitter Spaces chat. He said that at around 27 seconds into the flight SpaceX lost communications due to “some kind of energy event” and “some kind of explosion happened to knock out the heat shields of [Raptor] engines 17, 18, 19, or 20.” Musk said that the Super Heavy rocket kept going through T+62 seconds with the engines continuing to run then lost thrust vector control at T+85 seconds.
When the massive vehicle lifted off it generated a “rock tornado” at the Starbase launch tower but SpaceX did not find “evidence that the rock tornado actually damaged engines or heat shields in a material way," may have happened, but “we have not seen evidence of that,” he said. “I'm glad to report that the pad damage is actually quite small” and should “be repaired quickly,” shared Musk. When Super Heavy lifted off with the intense force of at least 30 Raptor V2 engines, it caused a crater under the launch mount, pictured below. Collectively, the engines are capable of generating over 16.5 million pounds of thrust at full throttle. “...From a pad standpoint, we are probably ready to launch in 6 to 8 weeks,” he said. “The longest item on that is probably requalification of the Flight Termination System [...] it took way too long to rupture the tanks,” he shared it took around 40 seconds and that it should have exploded quicker to terminate the flight.
Musk said that for the next Starship Super Heavy orbital launch attempt a priority is “insuring that we don't lose thrust vector control” with Booster 9. “Got pretty close to stage separation...if we had maintained thrust vector control and throttled up, which we should have...then we would have made it to staging,” he said. “Our goal for the next flight is to make it to staging and hopefully succeed.” He believes that with the data they gathered from the 4/20 launch there is now a 80% probability of reaching orbit with Starship this year, and “I think close to 100% change of reaching orbit within 12 months.” However, Musk reiterated that “the goal of these missions [test flights] is just information. Like, we don't have any payload or anything, it's just to learn as much as possible.”
Regarding launch pad modifications –“We're going to put down a lot of steel” under the launch tower before the next Starship flight with a water flame diverter system, he said. “We certainly didn't expect” to destroy the concrete under the launchpad. He speculates that the crater was caused due to “compressed the sand underneath the concrete to such a degree that the concrete effectively bent and then cracked.” Local Boca Chica residents had concerns about the debris that the launch caused, to which Musk said that the debris did not cause meaningful damage to the environment, “debris was really just basically sand and rock so it's not toxic at all [...] it's just like a sandstorm, essentially... but we don't want to do that again.” This year, Musk expects to spend around $2 Billion on the Starship launch system development. Read More: NASA Administrator expresses optimism about SpaceX's ability to land Artemis astronauts on the Moon by 2025, says next Starship flight in ~2 months
Liftoff from Starbase pic.twitter.com/rgpc2XO7Z9— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 20, 2023
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Featured Image Source: SpaceX
About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.