If a rocket and the spacecraft it was carrying self-destruct in the middle of a test flight, can the launch still be considered a success? That’s a question that many people at SpaceX — and, more broadly, in the space exploration community — will be asking themselves in the wake of today’s test of SpaceX’s Starship. (Not to be confused with Jefferson Starship or the band that gave us “We Built This City.”)
The Washington Post‘s coverage of the test launch has the proverbial good news and bad news. The good news? This test got a lot higher above the ground than the first test of Starship earlier this year. This test made it to 90 miles high; its predecessor only got to an altitude of 24 miles or so. The bad news is the aforementioned self-destruction of both the rocket and the craft it was carrying.
SpaceX’s Principal Rocket Engineer, John Insprucker, provided a likely explanation for the fate of the test flight. “What we do believe right now is that the automated flight termination system on second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn as we were headed downrange out over the Gulf of Mexico,” Insprucker told viewers who had tuned in to watch the test online.
As Kenneth Chang reported for the New York Times, the FAA will conduct an investigation, as is standard procedure in the aftermath of events like this. Chang also described the overall mood at SpaceX as positive, as this test managed to resolve issues that the initial test had revealed — even though the unsuccessful outcome this time around revealed other issues that will need to be resolved in order to achieve the company’s goals.
As for when we might expect the FAA to conclude their investigation, that remains to be seen. Their investigation of the first Starship test was closed in September, following an April 2023 test — so if this follows a similar schedule, we may know more about the underlying issues sometime next year.
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