SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas – Spacecraft launches illustrate events. After taking off very quickly, you discover who understands rocket making, and who are the ordinary observers who have no idea.
Before I left the launch viewing area on South Padre Island on Saturday, headlines began filling my news feed. “SpaceX’s second test flight of Starship ends with another explosion,” the Wall Street Journal wrote. Bloomberg was tougher still, saying: “The launch and failure of SpaceX Starship and Super Heavy Booster.” Perhaps, after consulting with their reporters, the editors then changed these online headlines. And the stories themselves better reflect reality. However, most media coverage of the launch issued a harsh verdict: another failure for Elon Musk and SpaceX.
I mean yes. The first stage of the Starship rocket, Super Heavy, has exploded. The upper stage, Starship, suffered a malfunction that caused the flight termination system – the explosives on board – to explode in case the vehicle began to fly off course. But that was to be expected on such an experimental, boundary-pushing test ride.
Starting with words like “failure” and “explosion” is a bit like putting the headline “Derek Jeter gets hit” in a news story about the 2001 World Series game in which he later hit a walk-off home run. Like, it’s accurate. But it’s a lazy move that completely misses the point.
Rapid reconstruction of ground systems
Here’s what SpaceX has already accomplished with its second Starship launch on Saturday morning, from a narrow peninsula of land in far southern Texas.
The vehicle’s first launch, in April, caused extensive damage to the launch pad and surrounding infrastructure. At the direction of SpaceX founder Elon Musk, the company tried to determine whether it could get away with launching the massive rocket without an advanced sound-suppression system to mitigate damage to the launch pad. This turned out not to be the case. The first spacecraft launch tore up the launch site by throwing chunks of concrete for miles around.
Musk and SpaceX learned their lesson and completely redesigned and rebuilt the launch pad to include an advanced water-based sound deadening system. By August, just four months later, the company had not only built the complex system, but had tested it. All of these changes created a more robust launch pad, which survived Saturday’s launch largely unscathed.
I then spoke with Philip Rensch, an engineer who has worked at SpaceX for five years and for a time managed the company’s Starbase facility near Boca Chica Beach in South Texas. He was impressed by the speed of the rebuild and the smoothness of ground support operations for Saturday’s launch.
“The thing I think about, which most people probably don’t notice, is how extremely hot and humid it is in Boca during the late summer and fall,” he said. “The team that rebuilt the orbital launch pad, the deluge, and the remaining launch pad did so in the hottest and most miserable part of the year. I remember experiencing mild heat exhaustion almost every day in August and September while working on the pad.”… “I pay tribute to the technicians, welders and engineers who spent the last seven months in the field to make this happen.”