The dust has settled in Texas, but the work to clean up after the world’s most powerful rocket and get the next one flying in a matter of months is already underway.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its fully-stacked Starship for the first time a little over a week ago. While the nearly 400-foot-tall vehicle flew for more than three minutes — achieving several milestones for a rocket of unprecedented scale — Starship also lost multiple engines during the launch, caused severe damage to the ground infrastructure and ultimately failed to reach space after the rocket began to tumble and was intentionally destroyed in the air.
As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology on Thursday that SpaceX “blew a hole in that launchpad.”
The company hopes to launch another Starship rocket as soon as June or July, but that timeline depends on a variety of factors, including repair work, regulatory signoff and the readiness of its next prototype.
Launch site damage
The highest hurdle to a second launch attempt may be the daunting cleanup.
Soon after the launch, SpaceX began the process of cleaning up the launchpad and assessing the damage to its infrastructure. Photos taken by onlookers have shown the violent result of the Super Heavy booster’s engines, which carved a crater into the ground and smashed debris into the launch tower, nearby tanks and other ground equipment.
“I have asked, so I can report to you, that as of today SpaceX is still saying that they think it will take at least two months to rebuild the launchpad and concurrently about two months to have their second vehicle ready to launch,” NASA chief Nelson told lawmakers Thursday, providing the most recent update on the company’s timeline for returning to flight.
The space agency has a vested interest in the success of Starship, as NASA gave SpaceX a nearly $3 billion contract in 2021 to use the rocket to land astronauts on the moon as part of the Artemis program.
SpaceX leadership repeatedly said before the launch that not blowing up the launchpad would be considered a success for the first launch. But the infrastructure still took a hit. In a series of tweets after the launch, Musk described significant damage to the concrete launchpad the company had built and said he hoped that the rocket hadn’t too heavily damaged the mount that supports it before launch.
“All that’s left of the concrete lateral support beam is the rebar!” Musk said.
The company CEO added that it was “still early” in SpaceX’s analysis, but surmised that “the force of the engines when they throttled up may have shattered the concrete, rather than simply eroding it.” When SpaceX briefly tested the booster’s 33 Raptor engines ahead of the launch, Musk said “the engines were only at half thrust,” which avoided tearing a hole in the ground previously.
One potential solution: Musk said SpaceX is “building a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount.” He said the plate was not “ready in time” for the first attempt and admitted that the company “wrongly thought” that the concrete would withstand the launch.
SpaceX’s launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration was a long-awaited final step to getting Starship off the ground, which makes the regulator’s investigation into this first flight a key overhang to the second one.
The Starship test flight triggered reviews from the FAA, which is effectively the lead federal regulator on the SpaceX rocket program. As is standard with a launch “anomaly,” such as this midair explosion, the FAA began an investigation into the flight and its fallout. The move grounds future Starship launches until it closes the investigation and clears SpaceX to move forward under the license the regulator gave the company earlier this month.
“A return to flight of the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety,” the agency said in a statement on April 20, the day of Starship’s launch and subsequent explosion.
Additionally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service disclosed this week that the Starship launch started a 3.5-acre fire on land owned by Texas’ Boca Chica State Park. FWS did not find dead wildlife on the local refuge lands, which are a habitat for endangered species, but found that the rocket’s destructive force flung concrete and metal “thousands of feet away” and created a cloud of dust and pulverized concrete that fell as far as 6.5 miles from the launch site.
One piece of SpaceX’s second attempt is already largely in place: the production pipeline for another Starship prototype.
The company had planned to launch the first Starship and Super Heavy booster flight as early as summer 2021, but president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell said recently that the inaugural flight was delayed in part because the company was focused on developing “the production systems that will build the ship.” The company has expanded its “Starbase” facility steadily over the past few years.
Thanks to the many enthusiasts who livestream every minute of SpaceX’s work in South Texas, it’s apparent the company has as many as 10 further Starship prototypes in various stages of assembly, as well as up to seven more Super Heavy boosters.
Nelson touted as much before members of Congress, explaining how the company approaches rocket development differently than the space agency.
“Now understand that the explosion, that’s not a big downer in the way SpaceX does things. They are hardware rich, meaning they’ve got a lot of those rockets ready to go, and that’s their modus operandi — they launch, if something goes wrong they figure out what it is, they go back and they launch it again,” Nelson said.
As with any rocket-development program, and especially the largest ever assembled, SpaceX’s timeline for the next Starship flight is likely to evolve and change.