from the off-the-top dept.
SpaceX's first full-scale Starship prototype – [Mark 1 (Mk. 1)] – has experienced a major failure at its Boca Chica test site in southern Texas. The failure occurred late in the afternoon on Wednesday, midway through a test of the vehicle's propellant tanks.
The Mk. 1 Starship – which was shown off to the world in September as part of SpaceX's and Elon Musk's presentation of the design changes to the Starship system was to fly the first 20 km test flight of the program in the coming weeks.
The main event of today, the Mk. 1 Starship's first cryogenic loading test, involved filling the methane and oxygen tanks with a cryogenic liquid.
During the test, the top bulkhead of the vehicle ruptured and was ejected away from the site, followed by a large cloud of vapors and cryogenic liquid from the tank.
Minutes after the anomaly was broadcast on several unofficial livestreams of SpaceX's Boca Chica facilities, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk acknowledged Starship Mk1's failure in a tweet, telegraphing a general lack of worry. Of note, Musk indicated that Mk1 was valuable mainly as a manufacturing pathfinder, entirely believable but also partially contradicting his September 2019 presentation, in which he pretty clearly stated that Mk1 would soon be launched to ~20 km to demonstrate Starship's exotic new skydiver landing strategy.
Musk says that instead of repairing Starship Mk1, SpaceX's Boca Chica team will move directly to Starship Mk3, a significantly more advanced design that has benefitted from the numerous lessons learned from building and flying Starhopper and fabricating Starship Mk1. The first Starship Mk3 ring appears to have already been prepared, but SpaceX's South Texas focus has clearly been almost entirely on preparing Starship Mk1 for wet dress rehearsal, static fire, and flight tests. After today's failure, it sounds like Mk1 will most likely be retired early and replaced as soon as possible by Mk3.
Above all else, the most important takeaway from today's Starship Mk1 anomaly is that the vehicle was a very early prototype and SpaceX likely wants to have vehicle failures occur on the ground or in-flight. As long as no humans are at risk, pushing Starship to failure (or suffering unplanned failures like today's) can only serve to benefit and improve the vehicle's design, especially when the failed hardware can be recovered intact (ish) and carefully analyzed.
Video of the rupture is available on NASASpaceFlight's forums. Start with this forum post and continue down the page for other pictures and videos.
Related: The SpaceX Starship Pushback: NASA Administrator's Scolding and More
SpaceX's Starship Can Launch 400 Starlink Satellites at Once
Artemis Program Requires More Cash to Reach Moon by 2024; SLS Could Cost 1,000x More Than Starship
SpaceX's "completed" Starship Mark 1 (Mk1) prototype was unveiled during an update presentation in Boca Chica, Texas on Saturday. The craft has two less-prominent aft fins instead of the three larger fins (acting as landing legs) seen in previous renderings, and two small fins on the nosecone. An upcoming 20 kilometer test flight of Mk1 will only use three sea level optimized Raptor engines, while the full version of Starship will use three sea level and three vacuum optimized Raptor engines. The dry mass of Starship will be higher than initially expected: about 100-120 tons instead of 85 tons (Mk1 is 200 tons). Payload to low Earth orbit (LEO) in fully reusable mode will start out near 100 tons but is expected to reach 150 tons.
SpaceX is currently making one new Raptor engine every 8-10 days, but hopes to speed that up to one engine every day in Q1 2020. The process of building Starships will also speed up due to unspooling steel and using single seam welds (giant rings of steel will still be joined together, but without the plates seen in Mk1). A Starship Mk3 could be completed within 3 months, and a Starship Mk3, Mk4, or Mk5 (with the Super Heavy booster) could reach orbit within 6 months from today. It may not be possible to get a Starship to orbit by itself, but even if it could, it would be expendable and not worth it. Therefore, orbital tests will depend on the rate of Raptor engine production. Around 100 engines will need to have been made by the time of the first test. Super Heavy could use as few as 24 engines to complete a mission, but is more likely to use 31, or a maximum of 37 engines. The amount is configurable as needed.
Elon Musk claimed that SpaceX could launch people on a Starship as early as next year, and that in-orbit refueling (called "orbital refilling" during the presentation) of Starship will be easier than docking with the International Space Station. The refueling process is necessary to get the full 100-150 tons of payload to the surface of the Moon, Mars, or other solar system destinations.
Musk estimated that a small fleet of 10-20 Starships could launch about 1,000 to 10,000 times as much mass to orbit in a year than is currently launched with all of the world's rockets annually, including SpaceX's Falcon 9/Heavy.
See also: r/SpaceX Starship Presentation Official Discussion & Updates Thread
SpaceX debuts Starship's new Super Heavy booster design
SpaceX envisions Starship-enabled cities on the Moon and Mars in new renders
Tesla on Mars addressed by Elon Musk in SpaceX's Starship Q&A session
Specifically, Bridenstine (or whoever fed him the statement) went out of his way to make it entirely one-sided in its focus on SpaceX. By all appearances, it would have never been posted if not for Elon Musk's plans to present on Starship. Bridenstine additionally notes that "Commercial Crew is years behind schedule" and indicates that "NASA expects to see the same level of enthusiasm focused on [its] investments".
Altogether, it's simply impossible to interpret it as anything less than Bridenstine scolding SpaceX – and SpaceX alone – for not falling to the floor, kissing NASA's feet, and pretending that Crew Dragon and Falcon 9 are the only things in existence. Absent from Bridenstine's criticism was NASA's other (and even more delay-complicit) Commercial Crew Partner, Boeing, who has yet to complete a pad abort or orbital flight test of its Starliner spacecraft. SpaceX completed Crew Dragon's pad abort in 2015 and completed a flawless orbital flight test in March 2019.
[...] [As] Musk noted in his relatively subtle September 28th responses to Bridenstine's implicitly derisive comment, something like 50-80% of the entirety of SpaceX's workforce and resources are focused on Crew Dragon, the Falcon 9 rockets that will launch it, or a combination of both. At present, Starship is – at most – a side project, even if its strategic importance to SpaceX is hard to exaggerate. The same is largely true for Starlink, SpaceX's ambitious internet satellite constellation program. It may be true that Starship will eventually make Crew and Cargo Dragon (as well as Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy) wholly redundant, but that is likely years away and SpaceX will support NASA – as it is contractually required to – for as long as the space agency has vested interest in using Crew Dragon.
[...] It would be another two years before Congress began to seriously fund Commercial Crew at its requested levels, beginning in FY2016. In response to Bridenstine, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver noted that over the ~5 years Congress consistently withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of critical funds from Commercial Crew, NASA's SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft were just as consistently overfunded above and beyond their budget requests. From 2011 to 2016 alone, SLS and Orion programs requested $11B and received an incredible $16.3B (148%) from Congress, while Commercial Crew requested $5.8B and received $2.4B (41%).
SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell has revealed that Starship can carry 400 Starlinks satellites into orbit, up from the 60 recently launched using a Falcon 9 rocket. The cost per launch may be negligible:
Beyond Shotwell's clear confidence that Starlink's satellite technology is far beyond OneWeb and years ahead of Amazon's Project Kuiper clone, she also touched on yet another strength: SpaceX's very own vertically-integrated launch systems. OneWeb plans to launch the vast majority of its Phase 1 constellation on Arianespace's commercial Soyuz rockets, with the launch contract alone expected to cost more than $1B for ~700 satellites.
SpaceX, on the other hand, owns, builds, and operates its own rocket factory and high-performance orbital launch vehicles and is the only company on Earth to have successfully fielded reusable rockets. In short, although Starlink's voracious need for launch capacity will undoubtedly require some major direct investments, a large portion of SpaceX's Starlink launch costs can be perceived as little more than the cost of propellant, work-hours, and recovery fleet operations. Boosters (and hopefully fairings) can be reused ad nauseum and so long as SpaceX sticks to its promise to put customer missions first, the practical opportunity cost of each Starlink launch should be close to zero.
[...] Shotwell revealed that a single Starship-Super Heavy launch should be able to place at least 400 Starlink satellites in orbit – a combined payload mass of ~120 metric tons (265,000 lb). Even if the cost of a Starship launch remained identical to Starlink v0.9's flight-proven Falcon 9, packing almost seven times as many Starlink satellites would singlehandedly cut the relative cost of launch per satellite by more than the 5X figure Musk noted.
In light of this new figure of 400 satellites per individual Starship launch, it's far easier to understand why SpaceX took the otherwise ludicrous step of reserving space for tens of thousands more Starlink satellites. Even if SpaceX arrives at a worst-case-scenario and is only able to launch Starship-Super Heavy once every 4-8 weeks for the first several years, that could translate to 2400-4800 Starlink satellites placed in orbit every year. Given that 120 tons to LEO is well within Starship's theoretical capabilities without orbital refueling, it's entirely possible that Starship could surpass Falcon 9's Starlink mass-to-orbit almost immediately after it completes its first orbital launch and recovery: a single Starship launch would be equivalent to almost 7 Falcon 9 missions.
The Starlink constellation can begin commercial operations with just 360-400 satellites, or 1,200 for global coverage. SpaceX has demonstrated a 610 Mbps connection to an in-flight U.S. military C-12 aircraft. SpaceX is planning to launch 60 additional Starlink satellites in November, marking the first reuse of a thrice-flown Falcon 9 booster.
Also at CNBC.
Previously: Third Time's the Charm! SpaceX Launch Good; Starlink Satellite Deployment Coming Up [Updated]
SpaceX Provides Update on Starship with Assembled Prototype as the Backdrop
SpaceX Requests Permission to Launch an Additional 30,000 Starlink Satellites, to a Total of 42,000+
Elon Musk Sends Tweet Via SpaceX's Starlink Satellite Broadband
SpaceX: Land Starship on Moon Before 2022, Then Do Cargo Runs for 2024 Human Landing
The White House warned Congress in a recent letter that without funding increases for its exploration programs, NASA won't be able to achieve the goal of landing humans on the moon in 2024.
The Oct. 23 letter from Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, addressed overall issues with appropriations bills that Shelby's committee had approved in recent weeks, including the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA.
"The Administration appreciates the Committee's continued support for space exploration, reflected in the $22.8 billion provided in the bill for NASA," Vought wrote in the letter, first reported by Ars Technica.
He took issue, though, with the funding provided for exploration research and development, which includes work on lunar landers and the lunar Gateway. "However, the $1.6 billion provided for exploration research and development (R&D) is insufficient to fully fund the lander system that astronauts would use to return to the Moon in 2024," he wrote. "Funding exploration R&D at the $2.3 billion level requested in the FY 2020 Budget is needed to support the Administration's goal of returning to the Moon by 2024."
From the Ars Technica article:
Congress has mandated that NASA use the more costly SLS[*] booster to launch the ambitious Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter in the early 2020s, while the White House prefers the agency to fly on a much-less-expensive commercial rocket. In a section discussing the Clipper mission, Vought's letter includes a cost estimate to build and fly a single SLS rocket in a given year—more than $2 billion—which NASA has not previously specified.
[*] SLS: Space Launch System.
"A single Starship will expend about $900,000 worth of fuel and oxygen for pressurization to send "at least 100 tons, probably 150 tons to orbit," Musk said. SpaceX's cost to operate Starship will be around $2 million per flight, which is "much less than even a tiny rocket," he added.
After scrubbing several attempts for weather concerns, technical issues, and even a range violation due to a nearby boat, SpaceX succeeded in static-fire testing the latest prototype of its Starship vehicle on Thursday.
At 3:02pm local time in South Texas, the single Raptor engine attached to the Starship prototype dubbed Serial Number 5, or SN5, roared to life for a few seconds. In video shared by NASASpaceflight.com, the test appeared to be nominal, evidently providing SpaceX engineers with the confidence they need in the latest iteration of Starship.
Starship SN5 just completed full duration static fire. 150m hop soon.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 30, 2020
Shortly after the test, the founder and chief engineer of SpaceX, Elon Musk, confirmed that the static fire meant the company now plans to move forward with a short test flight of the vehicle. Based upon a notification from the US Federal Aviation Administration, this 150-meter flight test could take place as soon as Sunday, with a launch window opening at 8am local time (13:00 UTC).
(2020-04-28) Starship Chilled. Starship Pressurized. and for the First Time, It Didn't Explode
(2020-04-03) SpaceX Almost Ready to Start Testing SN3 -- The Third Starship Prototype
(2019-11-21) Starship Prototype Mk1 Fails During Propellant Tank Loading Test: Onwards to Mk3
(2019-08-28) SpaceX's Starhopper Completes 150 Meter Test Hop