It is said that in the space sector, there are two types of tests: the successful ones and the instructive ones. If SpaceX’s communications are to be believed, the first Starship flight on April 20, which ended with the explosion of the giant launcher less than four minutes after liftoff, falls into the first category. This first flight is, however, far from being a total success. Although some technical problems are already in the process of being solved and Elon Musk’s company is working on its base in Boca Chica (Texas) to prepare the next step, analysis of this test has highlighted deficiencies that could have profound repercussions for NASA’s lunar program.
Let’s go back to April 20. As the countdown was ending, and while a myriad of parameters were being checked for each of the 33 Raptor engines that power the Super Heavy booster (the first stage of the Starship rocket), three of them were not cleared for ignition. This left 30, the minimum necessary for takeoff. The launch, therefore, took place a little sluggishly, according to Christophe Bonnal, an expert in launchers at the National Center for Space Studies (CNES): “The overall thrust was weaker than expected. The Starship took off slightly sideways and SpaceX was lucky because it could have razed the launch tower.” Despite this, the rocket soared into the Texas sky, breaking the sound barrier and also reaching the point where it experienced maximum stress, but it struggled to reach the 2,000 mph mark.
Other anomalies occurred. Three more motors broke down “for reasons we don’t know,” said Bonnal. “In addition, one of the hydraulic power units – used to move the 13 central adjustable motors – exploded.” After three minutes of flight, we should have witnessed the separation of the first and the second rocket stages. “This is a delicate maneuver,” added the CNES expert, “because the first stage mustn’t catch up with the second once the separation is made, as happened once to SpaceX on a flight of its Falcon-1 launcher. So, they came up with the idea of putting the launcher in a tilting motion so that the stages don’t collide once they separate. When we saw the Starship start to spin on itself, the first half-loop was therefore planned. But not the full loop …”
SpaceX did not explain why the separation didn’t happen. When the launcher began to whirl at an altitude of 39 kilometers, the flight termination system (FTS) was activated, but it took between 20 and 40 seconds for the rocket to explode. This is a significant anomaly that SpaceX may have to explain to the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA).
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