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SpaceX’s Starship Launch Outcome a Matter of Perspective – The Launch Roundup

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 24, 2023
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SpaceX’s Starship Launch Outcome a Matter of Perspective – The Launch Roundup
Starship lifts off from Starbase in Texas.

The question of whether SpaceX’s Starship maiden launch last Thursday was a success or a failure is a matter of perspective.

The plan called for Starship to crash into the ocean off the coast of Hawaii during a 90-minute flight that completing less than one orbit of the Earth. The four-minute flight that ended with Starship and Super Heavy being blow up by the automatic termination systems over the Gulf of Mexico didn’t meet that objective.

Prior to the launch, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said the flight would be successful if the rocket simply cleared the tower without exploding in a fireball. Based on the past history of new launching systems failing early in their testing programs, failing to reach orbit didn’t surprise observers. SpaceX did count the flight as a success with SpaceX’s engineers gaining an enormous amount of data about the performance of the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever built.

Twenty-seven of 33 Super Heavy engines fire with six engines not functioning. (Credit: SpaceX)
Six of 33 first stage Super Heavy engines are not firing. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

SpaceX has a culture of seeing failures as a step forward to success. Employees watching the launch at the company’s headquarters in California were cheering even as rocket parts fell into the Gulf.

The rocket did appear to cause major damage to the launch pad, sending concrete flying high into the air and gouging a hole into the ground.

Musk tweeted that the company is developing a water-cooled metal plate to replace the concrete pad that was destroyed by the launch. He said it was not ready in time for the maiden flight. Musk predicted the next Starship launch could be conducted within one to two months. However, his estimates tend to be optimistic.

NASA needs a version of Starship to land astronauts on the moon as part of the Artemis program. The space agency has given contracts worth $4 billion for a series of landings. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell has said Starship will fly at least 100 times before any astronauts climb aboard.

Week in Launches

DateLauncher – OrganizationPayload – OrganizationPurposeLaunch Site
April 19Falcon 9 – SpaceX21 Starlink – SpaceXCommunicationsCape Canaveral
April 20Starship/Super Heavy – SpaceXNoneFlight testStarbase
April 22PSLV – ISRO*TeLEOS-2 – AgilSpaceCommunicationsSatish Dhawan
Lumelite-4 – NUS+Tech demo
*Indian Space Research Organisation
+National University of Singapore

The importance of Starship to SpaceX was seen in the company’s other launch last week. A Falcon 9 launched 21 Starlink V2 broadband satellites. The advanced spacecraft are larger, heavier and more capable than the Starlink V1 and V1.5 spacecraft, which have been launched in batches of 50 to 60 depending upon the launch site.

In other launch news, an Indian PSLV rocket placed the TeLEOS-2 communications satellite into orbit for AgilSpace. The National University of Singapore’s Lumelite-4 technology demonstration satellite was a secondary payload on the flight.

A PSLV rocket launches the TeLEOS-2 and Lumelite-4 satellites into orbit on April 22, 2023. (Credit: ISRO)

Future Launches

SpaceX has three launches planned for the coming week, including a Falcon Heavy launch that will carry three communications into orbit. The company will also launch two communications satellites for SES and another batch of Starlink spacecraft.

Future Launches

DateLauncher – OrganizationPayload – OrganizationPurposeLaunch Site
April 25Falcon 9 – SpaceXStarlink – SpaceXCommunicationsVandenberg
April 26Falcon Heavy – SpaceXViaSat-3 Americas – ViaSatCommunicationsKennedy
Arcturus (Aurora 4A) – Astranis/Pacific DataportCommunications
Nusantara-H1A – PSN+Communications
April 28Falcon 9 – SpaceXO3b mPower FM23, FM24 – SESCommunicationsCape Canaveral
O3b mPower FM24 – SESCommunications
April 30Electron – Rocket Lab2 TROPICS^ – NASAEarth observationMahia
* Indian Space Research Organisation
+ PT Pasifik Satelit Nusantara (Indonesia)
^ Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats

Rocket Lab will launch two Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) satellites for NASA. The spacecraft will provide data about tropical cyclones and hurricanes. Rocket Lab will launch the remaining two TROPICS satellites in mid-May from New Zealand.

Launches to Date

The United States continues to lead the world with 32 launches. China is in a second place with 17 launches, followed by Russia with six flights. The top three nations have conducted 88.7% of the launches thus far this year.

Orbital Launches by Nation
Through April 16, 2023

United States2843251.6

India has now launched three times this year. Japan, Europe and Israel have conducted a combined four launches.

SpaceX has accounted for 26 of 32 American launches. The company has launched 845 of the 944 satellites sent into space this year.

Launches by Company/Agency
Through April 16, 2023

SpaceX (USA)251268450
CASC* (China)13013320
Roscosmos (Russia)40440
Rocket Lab (USA)30370
ISRO (India)303410
RVSN RF+ (Russia)20220
Arianespace (Europe)10110
Galactic Energy (China)10150
ExPace (China)10140
i-space (China)10000
MHI^ (Japan)10110
Israel Ministry of Defence10110
Space Pioneer (China)10110
Virgin Orbit (USA)01109
ABL Space Systems (USA)01102
JAXA (Japan)01101
Relativity Space (USA)01100
* China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation
^ Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
+ Russian Strategic Rocket Forces

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation remains dominant with 13 of the nation’s 17 launches.

Falcon 9 remains the most used rocket in the world with 24 flights. China’s Long March 2C and 2D boosters have combined for six flights.

Launches by Booster
Through April 16, 2023

Launch VehicleCompany/AgencySuccessesFailuresTotal
Falcon 9SpaceX24024
ElectronRocket Lab303
Long March 2CCASC*303
Long March 2DCASC*303
Soyuz-2.1aRoscosmos, RVSN RF303
Long March 3B/ECASC*202
Long March 4CCASC*202
Ariane 5Arianespace101
Ceres-1Galactic Energy101
Falcon HeavySpaceX101
Hyperbola 1i-space101
Kuaizhou 1AExPace101
Long March 4BCASC*101
Long March 7ACASC*101
Long March 11CASC*101
Shavit 2Israel Defense Forces101
Soyuz-2.1vRVSN RF101
Tianlong-2Space Pioneer101
LauncherOneVirgin Orbit011
RS1ABL Space Systems011
Terran 1Relativity Space011
* China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation
~ Mitsubishi Heavy Industries
+ Indian Space Research Organisation
^ Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency

Florida remains the busiest launch location in the world with 19 launches. There have been seven launches from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Rocket Lab has launched twice from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. Starbase and the Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska have hosted one launch apiece.

Launches by Location
Through April 16, 2023

Cape CanaveralUSA14115
Mid-Atlantic Regional SpaceportUSA202
Pacific Spaceport Complex – AlaskaUSA011
Satish DhawanIndia303
Europe’s SpaceportFrench Guiana101
Mahia PeninsulaNew Zealand101

Jiuquan leads all Chinese spaceports with 10 launches, followed by Taiyuan and Xichang with three launches each.

25 responses to “SpaceX’s Starship Launch Outcome a Matter of Perspective – The Launch Roundup”

  1. Thomas Matula says:

    To me this image from the NPR website says it all. Just look how it just emerges from the smoke and dust to reach for the sky. It also shows just how massive it is.

  2. lopan says:

    The image of the broken rings of lit engines in the sky reminds me of “hockey teeth.” As in, you do not want to mess with that guy. A rocket capable of flying that far and that long after that much damage is some kind of leviathan that will be unstoppable once they get the details right.

    • TDPerkins says:

      No Gary, that one was stoppable, and run by electronics hopelessly inadequate to the task.

    • duheagle says:

      I quite agree. The flight was, overall, far from a success, but certain aspects of it were damned impressive, especially, as you say, Super Heavy’s ability to “play hurt.” By rights, a rocket subjected to that much high-speed spalled concrete up its backside should have exploded on the pad. That it did not, I attribute to the armoring necessary to both survive re-entry many times and to limit damage from exploded engines. Surviving the unexpected high-speed and altitude aerobatics before a commanded self-destruct also speaks to the ruggedness of the design. And the newer ones waiting in line are even stronger and have fewer external points of vulnerability.

      As during so much of the last two years, the rocket was fine – it was Stage 0 that came up short.

  3. Obediah Headstrong says:

    So at least 100 unmanned launches of Starship before a crew gets the go ahead? At this pace this must be a decade away.

    • TDPerkins says:

      I suspect that like many prior vehicles, many fewer launches of a frozen design will suffice for crew rating.

    • TDPerkins says:

      Yes, this one was always intended to be spent in testing. When your hardware only costs a few tens of millions you can afford to destructively test and find out how well things really work, instead of guessing while killing people.

    • Steve says:

      The “Starship” portion didn’t even get tested this time as a free flying object. It was destroyed when separation didn’t happen. Didn’t they have 2 engines that didn’t light during the Wet Dress ? And now there is 4 or 5 more engines that cut out early ? Sounds like they have plenty of issues to work on.

      • duheagle says:

        Nearly all of which are associated with the GSE, not the rocket. One engine didn’t light during the attempted all-up static fire. The second was commanded off – probably an engine directly across from the one that didn’t light to preserve the thrust symmetry. The newer Super Heavies already incorporate some modifications relative to booster 7 anent propellant feed and other engine-related matters.

      • Robert G. Oler says:

        doomed 🙂

    • Cameron says:

      One distinctive feature of the pace of launches of any rocket is that they start slow then accelerate (if the business doesn’t fail).
      So assuming they will remain at the current pace is not a sensible assumption.

      Their estimates also assume re-use of both stages, as designed. Once they have that reliable, then expect to see the pace accelerate significantly.

    • redneck says:

      I would guess about 2026. Based on my guess that the pad will accept another launch attempt in a couple of months. I would put the next attempt at late June or early July. Three to five development flights this year. Five to ten development flights next year with Starlink deployments on the later ones. Some Super heavies recovered next year in flyable condition. Ramping up in 2025 with reliable recovery of Superheavy and climbing the learning curve of Starship recovery. 2026 to hit a real cadence with predictable operations.

      There are some that expect operational status this year and some that predict doom of the whole thing. The above is my GUESS, not prediction. The others also have their guesses. That’s okay as long as people don’t insist on theirs being the one and only possible interpretation.

      • duheagle says:

        Quite a plausible timeline. But I think things will proceed a bit more swiftly. The next test should be an attempt to complete the same profile intended for the ill-fated 4-20 test. If that goes well, I think we will see at least a Super Heavy catch attempt as early as the third test. I think repairs and upgrades made to the OLM and tower will render them significantly more resistant to misadventure that they were on 4-20. That will reduce the risk of trying a catch fairly early even should it fail.

  4. TDPerkins says:

    “Literally libraries of death-to-SLS comments written on these forums” <– And every bit of it very well deserved.

  5. Thomas Matula says:

    Looks like the environmentalists are applying their tried and true risk amplification to scare folks that the dust cloud from Starship was toxic, even though it is no different from the dust that normally blows over from the swamp when it dries out…

  6. Stanistani says:

    Having seen better photos of the launch pad damage, and factoring in an FAA investigation, I’m revising my guess for next launch to 2024, probably springtime.

    • duheagle says:

      I don’t think the FAA is likely to hold things up. Nor will the suit brought against the FAA by various tree-huggers. The biggest question mark would be the likelihood of another GSE failure. SpaceX could eliminate any reasonable doubt on that score, once the repairs and upgrades are complete, by putting B9 on the launch mount and running, say, a 10-second, all-engine, full-throttle static fire.

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