In a recent company talk, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shed light on the December test flight of the Starship, the world’s largest rocket. This test was significant, as it involved the hot-stage separation of the rocket’s first and second stages, with the latter successfully making its way into space. However, the mission was marred by an explosion of the second stage after a period of successful flight post-separation.
Musk’s explanation for the explosion is particularly insightful. He stated that the cause was an excess of liquid oxygen in the Starship’s second stage. During the liftoff, SpaceX had completely filled this stage with liquid oxygen and methane. The issue arose when the team attempted to vent this oxygen during flight, which inadvertently led to a fire and subsequent explosion.
This revelation highlights the complexities and challenges of rocket testing. Typically, mass simulators are used to mimic payload weight, but Musk suggested that using an actual payload for orbital delivery might have prevented the explosion. He explained, “So, flight 2 actually almost made it to orbit. So, in fact, ironically if it had a payload, it would have made it to orbit because the reason that it actually didn’t quite make it to orbit was we vented the liquid oxygen. And the liquid oxygen [inaudible] led to fire and an explosion, because we wanted to vent the liquid oxygen because we normally wouldn’t have that liquid oxygen if we had a payload. So, ironically, if it had a payload, it would have reached orbit.”
Musk’s insights are not just about the Starship’s test flight but also reflect SpaceX’s broader objectives and challenges. He emphasized SpaceX’s dependency on Starship for building its Starlink internet satellite constellation, conducting lunar missions for NASA, and planning crewed Mars flights. The Starship is crucial for these ambitious projects, and Musk acknowledged the need for rapid and efficient development, stating that SpaceX aims to achieve “full and rapid reusability.”
Furthermore, Musk highlighted SpaceX’s achievements and future goals. He noted that the company has successfully launched 42 astronauts with its Dragon program and now serves 2.3 million Starlink customers globally. He also mentioned plans for expanding Starlink connectivity and SpaceX’s commitment to NASA’s Artemis Moon program, which involves complex maneuvers like on-orbit refueling and in-space engine burns.