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On that fated Saturday, SpaceX successfully completed the fifth static fire of a Raptor engine installed on a full-scale Starship prototype, preceded by about an hour and a half of vehicle checks and propellant loading. Unfortunately, around a minute after Raptor shut down, what was quickly identified as liquid methane began spurting out of a specific section at the base of Starship, rapidly creating a massive cloud as the cryogenic propellant boiled and turned into gas. The specific source is unclear but moments later, something under Starship SN4 provided the shock or spark needed to ignite the expanding fire hazard, producing a spectacularly large and violent explosion.
Unsurprisingly, the accidental fuel-air explosion that was created obliterated Starship SN4 in the blink of an eye, shredding its lower (liquid oxygen) tank into steel confetti and immediately breaching the upper (liquid methane) tank, which fell to the ground and subsequently exploded again. The launch mount Starship was staged on was also damaged beyond repair and has been fully dismantled and scrapped in the two days since the anomaly. Thankfully, however, SpaceX already has replacement mounts and ships well on their way to carrying Starship SN4’s torch forward and Elon Musk already seems to understand what caused the prototype’s demise.
Shortly after a post-launch briefing celebrating and discussing SpaceX’s inaugural astronaut launch on May 30th, Reuters reporter Joey Roulette was able to ask Musk about Starship SN4’s spectacular demise the day prior. The SpaceX CEO was quoted saying that “what we thought was going to be a minor test of a quick disconnect ended up being a big problem”, confirming suspicions based on careful analysis of public views of the explosion that it was caused by issues with Starship’s ground support equipment (GSE).
In Musk’s statement, “quick disconnect” (QD) refers to an umbilical port that connects a launch vehicle to GSE, enabling the loading and offloading of propellant and fluids, clamping down the rocket, and providing a wired telemetry and communications link for ground controllers. QDs must perform all those tasks while also being able to rapidly release and disconnect, allowing the rocket to lift off while still protecting its sensitive ports for ease of reuse.
In theory, Starship’s quick-disconnect umbilical panel is even more complex, as it will have to simultaneously enable the ship to be fueled and controlled while sitting on top of a Super Heavy booster and permit in-orbit docking and refueling. Given that Starships are currently being tested independently on spartan launch mounts, it’s unclear if the current generation of prototypes has been outfitted with advanced QD panels. More likely, Musk was referring to a test of a less advanced QD panel similar to the rough version used on Starhopper last year, and SpaceX simply wanted to test its ability to disconnect and reconnect to Starship on command.
If that’s the case, the likeliest explanation for SN4’s explosion is that that quick disconnect was unable to fully reconnect after the test, resulting in a leak from the liquid methane port when SpaceX began to detank the rocket. Instead of the highly-pressurized fluid flowing smoothly back to ground storage tanks, the liquid methane sprayed wildly, akin to the effect one might observe when attempting to block off an active water source with an open palm.
Compared to the many possible ways a fueled Starship could fail, a propellant leak started by a faulty umbilical panel is about as convenient as they come. Starship SN4 may have been violently destroyed as a result, turning a relatively small error into exceptionally painful lesson but SpaceX has already had some success building full-scale prototypes at an almost unbelievably low cost – likely less than $10M apiece. Starship SN5 appears to be just shy of ready to take SN4’s place on the launch mount, although SpaceX will have to build an entirely new launch mount before it can resume testing.
At the same time, Starship SN5’s successor – SN6 – is just one stacking event away from reaching a level of completion similar to SN4 and SN5. All told, Starship SN4’s demise is just another part of the process of developing a new kind of rocket by building and testing hardware – failure can be a valuable tool when managed properly. Based on past observations, SpaceX could be ready to continue testing (and hopefully flying) Starship prototypes before the end of the month.
SpaceX launched astronauts for the first time barely a week ago but CEO Elon Musk does not want the company resting on its laurels.
Instead, Musk urged SpaceX employees to accelerate progress on its next-generation Starship rocket “dramatically and immediately,” writing Saturday in a company-wide email seen by CNBC.
“Please consider the top SpaceX priority (apart from anything that could reduce Dragon return risk) to be Starship,” Musk wrote in the email.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on Musk’s email.
His space company launched a pair of NASA astronauts on May 30, marking a historic first for SpaceX and a crucial step forward for the U.S. space program. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule carried the astronauts to orbit and on to the International Space Station. That mission is ongoing, as Musk noted, with the spacecraft set to return the astronauts to Earth in the next couple months.
The Falcon 9 rocket that launched the astronauts is the mainstay of SpaceX’s business, with 85 missions over the past decade. But Starship represents the company’s aim to make obsolete even the cost-saving advances of its Falcon 9 fleet. Its Falcon 9 rockets are partially reusable, as the company often lands the large “booster” stage of the rocket and recovers the rocket’s nosecone. But Musk’s goal is to make Starship fully reusable — envisioning a rocket that is more akin to a commercial airplane, with short turnaround times between flights.
Musk last year unveiled the Starship prototype, built of stainless steel and dwarfing the company’s existing spacecraft. SpaceX is developing Starship with the goal of launching as many as 100 people at a time on missions to the moon and Mars.
So far, the company’s Starship development program in Boca Chica, Texas has suffered four dramatic setbacks. While SpaceX has made progress on each iteration, the most recent prototype exploded shortly after an engine test on May 29.
“We need to accelerate Starship progress,” Musk said in Saturday’s email.
Musk’s emphasis on Starship comes nine months after a controversial comment by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, just before SpaceX unveiled the latest prototype. The NASA chief declared his agency wanted “to see the same level of enthusiasm” for SpaceX launching NASA astronauts as there was for the Starship program, saying it was “time to deliver.”
At the time, Musk said that SpaceX “resources are overwhelmingly” focused on finishing development of the Crew Dragon spacecraft. Now, with SpaceX having delivered on the first part of its commitment to fly NASA astronauts, Musk is turning the company’s attention to Starship.
SpaceX has raised nearly $1.7 billion since the beginning of 2019, with its valuation rising to around $36 billion according to CNBC sources. The company has steadily raised funding as its developed three ambitious programs: the Crew Dragon spacecraft, its Starlink internet satellites and the massive Starship rocket.
The Starship program has seen prototypes pass several critical milestones but SpaceX has yet to begin flight testing its most recent design. A previous iteration, known as Starhopper, completed a short launch and landing flight test in August.
SpaceX continues to build up its facility in Boca Chica, an area along the Gulf of Mexico at the most southern part of the U.S. and Mexico border in Texas. Musk noted that he’s often been on site at Boca Chica recently and continues to do so. On Saturday he tweeted an aerial view of the complex, showing its growing array of production tents and rocket manufacturing bays.
In his email, Musk asked SpaceX employees to “consider spending significant time” in Boca Chica to help further accelerate Starship development. SpaceX has about 8,000 employees, most of whom are at the company’s Los Angeles area headquarters or its facilities at Cape Canaveral, Florida or near Austin, Texas. Although SpaceX has some land under lease in the Port of Los Angeles for Starship development, Musk’s email implied that the company is seeking to incentivize employees to move to Texas from California and Florida.
“For those considering moving, we will always offer a dedicated SpaceX aircraft to shuttle people,” Musk wrote.
SpaceX owns and operates at least one private jet, as the company has charged Tesla for use of the aircraft as recently as the first quarter of 2020. But the extraordinary relocation offer underlines how crucial Musk sees the Starship project. The company’s Boca Chica team is already working nearly around the clock but Musk wants more, urging SpaceX employees to help Starship development progress even more quickly.
SpaceX’s next major Falcon 9 fairing reuse milestone is now within reach after the company managed to successfully recover an entire reused nosecone with both halves intact.
On June 13th, a flight-proven Falcon 9 rocket lifted off on the seventh Starlink mission of 2020 and ninth launch overall, also marking SpaceX’s third reuse of a payload fairing since the first flight-proven nosecone flew in November 2019. As usual, Falcon 9’s upper stage commanded fairing deployment around three minutes after launch, leaving the house-sized shells to coast to an apogee of ~150 km (~93 mi) before falling back down to Earth. Once safely through reentry, both halves deployed GPS-guided parafoils and flew in the direction of two recovery ships, gliding for more than half an hour.
Unfortunately, although they likely got close, recovery ships GO Ms Tree and Ms Chief were unable to catch the parasailing fairings in their football field-size nets, leaving them to gently splash down in the Atlantic Ocean. Technicians were able to fish them out of the water with smaller onboard nets soon after and the ships sailed into port less than 36 hours later.
Preventing a vast majority of seawater exposure, a catch with Ms. Tree or Ms. Chief may always be preferable for fairing reuse but the fact remains that all three successful reuses up to this point have been achieved with fairing halves that landed in the ocean. That success means that SpaceX has found a way to fully prevent or mitigate any potential corrosion that might result from seawater immersion. Given that that problem must have been a showstopper for the ~2.5 years SpaceX was able to recover – but not reuse – intact fairings, it’s safe to say that the company’s engineers have more or less solved the problem of corrosion.
In fewer words, although there has yet to be any official confirmation that Falcon 9 fairings are capable of flying more than twice, there’s good reason to believe that the design upgrade that enabled one reuse had some built-in headroom. If that’s true, then one or both of the twice-flown fairing halves that safely returned to dry land on June 14th could fly for the third time just a few months from now – less than a year after the first reuse. For reference, it took SpaceX some ~33 months to go from the first reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage to the second reuse (third flight) of a single booster.
With as many as 13-17 more Starlink launches still on SpaceX’s 2020 manifest, there will be no shortage of opportunities for such a fairing reuse milestone – if possible – over the next six months. SpaceX’s next Starlink launch – the third launch in June alone and tenth mission overall – is scheduled no earlier than (NET) 6:20 pm EDT (22:20 UTC), June 22nd.
SpaceX has destroyed the third Starship ‘test tank’ prototype since it began building and testing the stout steel structures earlier this year.
Much like the third test tank SpaceX built was fashioned out of in-work hardware originally destined to become the full-scale Starship SN2 prototype, the latest tank was built with parts that may have initially been meant for Starship SN7. While SN7’s purpose – stress-testing new designs and manufacturing techniques – was largely identical to its predecessors, the test tank was by far the most radical departure from past hardware yet. The reason: SN7 was built entirely out of a different stainless steel alloy.
Deemed 304L, the type of steel is still readily available off the shelf and only 10-20% more expensive than the 301 alloy SpaceX has used to build all Starship prototypes up to SN7. The biggest change it brings to the table is improved ductility (malleability), particularly at the cryogenic temperatures Starship’s tanks will often be held at. By reducing brittleness, Starships built out of 304L steel should be able to fail far more gracefully by developing stable leaks instead of violently decompressing. In fact, the very same test tank destroyed on June 23rd demonstrated that capability perfectly when it sprung a leak during its first pressure test on June 15th.
During its first cryogenic pressure test with liquid nitrogen, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk revealed that the SN7 test tank managed to reach 7.6 bar (~110 psi) before it began to leak – technically satisfactory for orbital Starship launches with an industry-standard 25% safety factor. Thanks to the general flexibility of steel, including the new 304L alloy SN7 was built with, SpaceX was able to simply repair the leak it identified, readying the test tank for a second cryogenic pressure test barely a week later.
The tank’s second test was all but identical to the first up to the end, where its lower dome appeared to more or less unzip from the steel ring it was welded to. It remains to be seen if SN7 was able to beat its previous record during the second test but the failure mode was quite a bit different from any previous test tank, meaning that SpaceX has gathered useful new data regardless. If the 304L steel tank matched or beat a 301 tank’s current record of ~8.5 bar (~125 psi), SpaceX will very likely build all future Starship tanks out of the material.
According to Musk, another 304L test tank is already in the works and should be able to take SN7’s place very shortly. At the same time, SpaceX appears to finally be ready to roll the next full-scale Starship prototype (SN5) to the launch pad as early as June 24th to kick off cryogenic proof testing, Raptor static fires, and (hopefully) flight tests.
Richard Branson’s space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic, will start coordinating private astronaut trips to the International Space Station for NASA — a new partnership aimed at increasing commercial use of the space agency’s orbiting outpost.
Thanks to a new Space Act Agreement with NASA, Virgin Galactic is tasked with putting together a “new private orbital astronaut readiness program,” for the agency. That means finding companies or organizations with an interest in sending people to the space station — for whatever reason — and then finding the right transportation to get them up there. Virgin Galactic will also be responsible for coordinating the necessary resources, both in space and on the ground, to make these trips successful.
It’s a similar mission to that of Space Adventures, a space tourism company that has put together trips to space for wealthy tourists. However, Virgin Galactic says it’s looking for a wide variety of customers, beyond the ones who just want a fun trip to space. “This is not just for potentially private space travelers, but could also be for researchers or even government researchers,” George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO, tells The Verge, noting that people from all over the world could fly through this program.
This new focus on orbital spaceflight may seem odd for Virgin Galactic, which has been mostly focused on suborbital spaceflight for the last decade and a half. Virgin Galactic’s main business revolves around sending paying customers to the edge of space and back on the company’s rocket-powered spaceplane, VSS Unity. The passenger vehicle is designed to take off in midair after deploying from underneath the wing of a carrier aircraft. It climbs to a height of about 55 miles, giving any prospective passengers a short taste of weightlessness, before gliding back to Earth and landing on a runway.
Virgin Galactic has yet to begin commercial operations of its space tourism business, and it has only sent five people to space on two separate test flights. But the company argues that its experience so far makes it qualified to run this kind of program for NASA. Additionally, many of the people who work at Virgin Galactic have experience on past human spaceflight programs at NASA. “We actually have grown on a lot of that experience to build the suborbital program in the first place,” Mike Moses, Virgin Galactic’s president who worked as the launch integration manager for the Space Shuttle Program, tells The Verge. “It’s obviously a reduced down version, and it’s a little more simplified — you’re not going for multiple days. But a lot of the philosophies are the same. A lot of the rationale is the same.”
Virgin Galactic is developing an astronaut training program for its future customers who will fly on the company’s spaceplane out of Spaceport America in New Mexico. And through this new agreement, Virgin Galactic will draw on that experience and develop another training program for the customers it finds for NASA. Though that program will be tailored to prepare people for orbit and how to use the space station.
The new training program may entail riding on Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane, providing customers with some experience of space and weightlessness before they head to orbit for a longer stay. The company’s spaceplane also pulls extra Gs when it ascends to space, as do rockets taking off to orbit. Experiencing that firsthand could also be valuable for training, according to the company. Virgin Galactic says prospective astronauts will also use some of the company’s facilities at Spaceport America in New Mexico to prepare for their journeys.
“We want to put the right package around it, so it’s not just ‘Go to a class and listen to a PowerPoint for three hours,’” says Moses. “How do you make that an engaging and enjoyable experience that you’re going to want to be able to do?”
NASA says it will ultimately review the plan that Virgin Galactic puts together. “Under the agreement, NASA will conduct an assessment of the feasibility of Virgin Galactic’s plan to develop a new private orbital astronaut readiness program to enable private astronaut missions to the International Space Station,” NASA said in a statement to The Verge. “Virgin Galactic’s plans to develop a new private orbital astronaut readiness program directly support NASA’s broad strategy to facilitate the commercialization of low-Earth orbit by U.S. entities.”
This news comes after NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine also announced plans to fly NASA astronauts on suborbital vehicles, like Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane and rival Blue Origin’s tourist rocket. Bridenstine didn’t provide much detail on that, saying those plans would come out sometime this week.
The partnership also means that Virgin Galactic will take on a new role as a broker, procuring customers, resources, and transportation to make these trips possible. Right now, the company has a handful of new transportation options, geared toward flying people to orbit. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon just sent its first two passengers to the ISS and should start regularly flying people to and from orbit later this year. Boeing is also developing a crew capsule called the CST-100 Starliner to take people to orbit, though the vehicle likely won’t fly its first passengers until next year at the earliest. Each seat on the Crew Dragon runs a little less than $60 million, while a seat on the Starliner costs around $90 million.
Meanwhile, there is a third non-American option for getting to orbit: Russia’s Soyuz capsule, which has been the sole method for getting astronauts to and from the space station since NASA’s Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Historically, NASA has paid about $80 million for one seat on the Soyuz.
Though these are the only three options for getting humans to the International Space Station, Virgin Galactic would not comment on which vehicles are being considered for flights. However, Moses said the training program that the company develops will have to be tailored, depending on which capsules the people take to space. SpaceX, for instance, has developed various hardware at its facilities in Hawthorne, California, to simulate what it’s like to fly on the Crew Dragon, which could come in handy for training.
Virgin Galactic says it’s in preliminary discussions with prospective customers interested in sending people to the space station for a variety of different reasons — from commercial purposes to research. The company is also looking at a way to train customers for how they’ll use the space station when they’re up there, depending on the reason for their visit. “What you’re going to do while you’re there is the other big piece we’re really looking forward to sinking our teeth into,” Moses says. “How to prepare you while you’re there and then support you once you’re on station.”
This new program feeds into a larger goal for NASA of opening up the International Space Station to more commercial pursuits. For decades, the ISS has mainly been a place for government and academic research, but the space agency announced last year that it will allow companies access to the ISS for commercial purposes, such as filming ads or movies, and even allow these companies to send their own private astronauts to the station. So far, a company called Axiom, aimed at building a private space station, announced plans to send its own representatives to the ISS via a Crew Dragon capsule late next year.
“The exciting thing here is that this is sort of another step towards opening up low Earth orbit to a diverse renaissance of activity, and we’re happy to be a part of it,” says Whitesides.
The modern space race is heating up, and the European Union is acutely aware that it needs to keep pace. Space chief Thierry Breton told Reuters in an interview that the EU is accelerating its plans in light of rapid progress by private companies like SpaceX as well as China’s successes. It’s moving the deployment of its Galileo navigation satellites ahead by three years, to 2024, and will use its budget for the first time to support reusable rockets and other new launch tech. The EU is also forging a €1 billion deal with Arianespace to spur innovation, and will propose a €1 billion European Space Fund and competitions to foster startups.
Breton also hoped to launch a pan-European satellite broadband network as well as a system to avoid collisions with satellites and other items in orbit.
There may be good reason to hurry. The EU has been pushing for independence from other countries’ space systems, and that’s difficult with slower, non-reusable rocket launches and a reliance on the US’ GPS satellite constellation. Whether or not it can is another matter. The EU is still grappling with the realities of the pandemic, and there’s no guarantee spaceflight will receive a large-enough budget when many other things need urgent attention.