April 20, 2023: Liftoff! SpaceX conducted the first orbital flight test of Starship. It is a rocket of superlatives, dwarfing both the iconic Saturn V and the SLS in terms of thrust, payload capacity, and size.
While some commentators in popular media focus on the “mid-flight explosion” of Starship, they overlook the fact that this was a flight test that was not expected to fully work. Many of the steps for an orbital launch were completed successfully: from fueling the rocket, to lighting the engines, to clearing the tower, to passing max q and achieving an altitude of almost 40km. Starship achieved all this despite experiencing several engine failures, which points to the amount of redundancy built into the rocket.
Stage separation appears to have failed, resulting in the intentional destruction of the rocket for safety reasons. However, if it had succeeded, the only remaining major step for a successful orbital launch would have been lighting Starship’s engines. On top of that, the aerobatics performed by the combined booster/Starship stack without obvious structural failures were rather impressive as well.
So, all in all, not bad for a first flight test! As one person commented in a forum, “if you learn how to ride a bike, and you make it a dozen yards down the road before falling over, that’s still a big success. It’s part of the process. All you need to do is get up and try again.” SpaceX is certainly poised to do so, with Elon Musk stating that they intend to build about 5 full stacks this year.
The Odyssey team is looking forward to the next flight test!