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Starship Reaches Space, Falls Short of Orbit

Starship lifts off from Boca Chica Texas
Image Credit: David Diebold for Space Scout

Starship has made it to space. At 7:02 AM CST, the 397 ft tall launch vehicle lifted off from its South Texas launch site, becoming the most powerful rocket ever flown into space. The IFT-2 mission passed SpaceX’s stated goal of getting through stage separation, but still fell short of its full goal of a lap around the Earth. However, the mission was a massive leap forward from the rocket’s first performance last April.

The buildup to this mission began on April 20th, 2023, when Starship first lifted off from Boca Chica, Texas. The vehicle climbed away from the launch pad, decimating the concrete structure as it cleared the tower. As the vehicle climbed away from the launch site, multiple Raptor engines shut down as the Booster struggled to climb. The flight ended after a fire in the engine bay cut off the flight computer from the Booster’s main engines, resulting in the vehicle tumbling off course. The Automatic Flight Safety System (AFSS) fired explosives to destroy the vehicle, and after a delay, the vehicle broke apart approximately 4 minutes into flight.

After the flight, work began to repair and upgrade the Orbital Launch Pad. This included adding a “Water-Cooled Steel Plate” to better handle the 16.7 million pounds of thrust produced by the 33 Raptor engines. This system was first tested on July 17th. Another major change was the addition of electronic thrust vector control to the vehicle. This is used to steer the vehicle during the flight by controlling the angle at which the center engines on each stage are firing. This replaced the hydraulic system of the first flight, which suffered a number of major issues during ascent including the loss of one of the Hydraulic Power Units that provided pressure for the system.

The IFT-2 mission began with the ignition of all 33 Raptor engines, and a successful liftoff and pitch maneuver. All appeared nominal throughout the Superheavy flight with the Raptor engines firing for the full expected duration. The Booster then shut down 30 of the engines to enable the “hot staging” event. Starship then lit all 6 of its engines to pull away from the Superheavy Booster.

Superheavy explodes shortly after staging
Image Credit: David Diebold for Space Scout

Shortly after staging, the Superheavy Booster began turning around to begin a boostback burn, and attempted to relight 10 more engines. At this point, it appeared there was an anomaly, with one of the engines not relighting, and then 6 of the engines shutting down in rapid succession. The rest of the engines then shut down, and the stage exploded moments later when the AFTS was activated.

The Ship continued on its trajectory for another 5 minutes, with all 6 Raptor engines continuing to fire. All appeared nominal until near the end of its burn, when SpaceX suddenly lost all data from the Ship. An event was seen on camera, and shortly afterwards SpaceX announced they believe the AFTS was activated, destroying the Ship. At shutdown the vehicle looked to be approximately 1 kilometer per second, or approximately 4,000 kph, short of its intended velocity per the SpaceX webcast infographics.

Today’s test flight marks a major milestone for Starship, as it continues on its path to an operational launch system. While the mission was not entirely successful, as reusability goals are paramount to the rapid turnaround of the Starship/Superheavy system, this mission has demonstrated considerable improvement over the company’s first attempt. SpaceX must now continue developing the system over the coming years, including their planned Ship-to-Ship refueling system. Development of these key technologies are essential to their planned operations for the Human Landing System contract with NASA, which will land the first woman and first person of color on the moon as part of the Artemis Program.

With IFT-2 now complete, SpaceX will begin preparing for their third flight test, where they intend to have both the Ship and Booster re-enter and simulate a soft landing in the ocean. As of now, SpaceX finds themselves in a much better position than after IFT-1. The future of Starship remains an unwritten book; however, the first pages are painting an ambitious future for the massive launch vehicle.

Edited by Nik Alexander, Beverly Casillas, Scarlet Dominik

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