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SpaceX's Starship Just Exploded -- But That's Still Good News

By Rich Smith – Dec 13, 2020 at 7:15AM

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Despite the fireball, almost everything went right with Wednesday's test flight.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is a man who regularly "makes history." He didn't quite do that this week -- but at least he made the evening news.

In recent years, SpaceX has put the first privately built and operated spacecraft in orbit around Earth. It was first to send a privately built, orbital-class rocket to space, and then land its booster back on Earth (and later on a ship at sea). Its Falcon Heavy rocket, which debuted way back in 2018, remains the biggest, most powerful operational rocket on the planet.

But now SpaceX and Musk want to fly something even bigger -- and it could change the economics of the space industry forever.

Actual photo -- not an artist's depiction -- of SpaceX Starship MK1.

Starship MK1 -- the first of its line. Image source: SpaceX.

To the moon, Alice (or in that general direction)

That's why on Wednesday, Dec. 9, SpaceX conducted the first-ever high-altitude test flight of its Starship interplanetary rocketship -- the vessel Musk hopes will soon carry U.S. astronauts to the moon, and a few years later to Mars.

In a demonstration that lasted just 6 minutes, 42 seconds start to finish, Starship "SN8" lifted off vertically, climbed to an estimated altitude of 41,000 feet (just under eight miles), then turned off its engines and executed a "belly flop" maneuver -- flipping horizontally to increase wind resistance and surface area (slowing the craft down and dissipating heat) as it plunged back to Earth. Just 11 seconds before impact, SN8 reignited its engines to swing itself back to vertical, and kept firing as it attempted to slow down and land on its tail. 

It failed.

Impacting just a degree or two off-perpendicular, and moving a few meters per second too fast for safety, the rocket hit its landing site and exploded in a ball of fire.

Baby steps toward success

But that's OK. Remember that this was SpaceX's first high-altitude test flight after multiple shorter "hops" with previous iterations of the Starship, several of which blew up before they even left the ground. In contrast, on this test flight, it looked like 99.9% of what needed to go right did.

In tweets after the event, Elon Musk described the rocket's "ascent, switchover to header tanks & precise flap control" as all "successful." Indeed, SpaceX implied the spacecraft might have survived its landing but for the fact that "low pressure in the fuel header tank during the landing burn" prevented it from slowing down enough before landing. In any event, Elon said: "We got all the data we needed."

I don't know about you, but that sounds to me a lot like a promise that SpaceX will sharpen its pencils, figure out the final details it needs to get right, and be running another test flight pretty darn soon.

And if it gets that one 100% right? What happens next?

Changing the economics of spaceflight

I'll tell you what happens: Space gets cheaper. A whole lot cheaper.

Think about it this way: Currently, the largest non-SpaceX rocket in operation is the United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy, which can lift about 24 metric tons of cargo into Low Earth Orbit for a cost of about $150 million.

SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, meanwhile, can carry more than twice the payload (64 tons) for much less money ($99 million in one recent contract). But even early-model Starships are estimated to have an LEO payload capacity in excess of 100 metric tons. 

So even if SpaceX charges as much for a Starship launch as ULA already charges for a Delta IV Heavy, the payload Starship can launch for that price will be four times as much. And this means that with Starship, SpaceX will be able to both charge lower prices for space launch and preserve a higher profit margin, if it so desires.

More than that, because Starship is designed as a reusable spacecraft (as opposed to Delta IV Heavy, which is expended after each launch), the marginal cost to SpaceX of launching Starship could drop rapidly to approach the cost of the fuel to launch it -- something on the order of $1 million or $2 million, according to Musk -- which should make SpaceX vastly more profitable than any other space company on Earth.

I've said it before and now I'll say it again: If SpaceX gets Starship built, and proves it can fly, this is going to change space launch forever.

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