New Space and Tech

Starship Completes Historic Second Launch Then Loses Contact

By David Ariosto
November 18, 2023
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Starship Completes Historic Second Launch Then Loses Contact
Starship’s second test launch.
Image credit: SpaceX.

The massive rocket that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk positioned as the vehicle that will bring astronauts to the Moon and eventually Mars took flight on Saturday (November 18), approximately seven months after the first launch exploded in what SpaceX then playfully described as a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”

All 33 of Starship’s oxygen and methane-guzzling Rapture 2 engines, which NASA says the company is now producing daily, fired its Super Heavy booster at 8:03 AM ET from “Starbase,” located in Boca Chica, near the Texas city of Brownsville on the US Gulf Coast.

But about 10 minutes into its journey, mission control appeared to lose contact with the vehicle. SpaceX later said it believes that Starship’s self-destruct system, a safety mechanism, had engaged.

“What we do believe right now is that the Automated Flight Termination System on the second stage appears to have triggered very late in the burn,” SpaceX principal integration engineer John Insprucker said during the company’s webcast of the launch.

The hulking vehicle is comprised of a reusable first-stage booster and upper stage, which is coincidentally also known as Starship.

Originally scheduled for Friday, a faulty grid fin actuator had delayed the launch one day. The device is responsible for controlling movement and orientation of the grid fins, which extend off the rocket’s body, and is used for aerodynamic control. 

Engineering challenges

Considered the most powerful rocket ever built, Starship stands at a whopping 394 feet tall, or roughly the length of two hockey rinks. Like its smaller Falcon 9 predecessor – which is the first commercial rocket to ferry human passengers to the International Space Station – it is engineered to be fully reusable, and is eventually expected to carry out vertical landings.

But former high-level company employees who worked on the project say the manufacturing and development process that is required to go from Falcon 9 to Starship is several orders of magnitude harder, given the increased complexities of the Raptor engines, new heat shield technologies, and a widely different overall mission purpose and design. 

Starship’s first flight test launched on April 20, when it exploded shortly after liftoff because the craft’s upper stage failed to separate from its first stage, among other problems — including the fact that the rocket’s trajectory was altered when three of the booster’s 33 engines did not engage. 

Musk later said SpaceX “chose not to start” those engines, given they were not “healthy enough to bring them to full thrust.” SpaceX also “lost communications” with another engine roughly 27 seconds into the launch. Back then, it took as many as 40 seconds for the rocket’s Autonomous Flight Termination System, which detonates the vehicle should it fly off course, to engage.

“Fail fast and iterate”

SpaceX, which is known for its fail-fast-and-iterate approach, said the “First flight of test provided numerous lessons learned.” Musk later added that the company made more than 1,000 changes following the initial launch, including the debut a hot-stage separation system, along with other enhancements and reinforcements to the launch pad itself.

The term “hot staging” refers to a method in which the six upper-stage engines engage while three of the 33 lower-stage engines are still pushing. The process is designed to prevent the fuel in the upper stage from the kind of weightlessness it would otherwise experience if all the lower-stage engines cut off, thereby making it easier to direct the fuel during flight.  

All six of Starship’s engines fired. And cheers from the crowd gathered at SpaceX headquarters and mission control in Hawthorne, California, could be heard after separation.  

Several seconds later, however, the Super Heavy booster exploded. And just moments after that, communications with Starship itself also cut off. Nonetheless, company executives heralded Saturday’s launch as a major milestone, given the apparent success with the new hot staging method, as well as the conclusion of several regulatory delays.

Rapid Deployment

On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration issued approval for the launch.

That same night, Musk was spotted at a San Francisco reception for visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping, which followed a dinner hosted by the U.S.-China Business Council and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. 

The following day, just two days before the launch, Musk had posted an image of himself shaking hands with President Xi, the leader of a nation with its own burgeoning space program.

The caption contained just six words: “May there be prosperity for all.”

China’s space program, which did not launch a human to space until 2003, has shown a steady increase in missions this century, which include three unmanned lunar landings, including a first-ever far-side of the moon touch down.

Both Beijing and Washington aim to develop bases on the lunar south pole, where there is – among other resources – water ice and a non-radioactive isotope called Helium-3, both of which could be used as future energy sources.

NASA, meanwhile, has chosen SpaceX to develop a human landing system variant of Starship to ferry American astronauts to the Moon under the Artemis III program, which is expected to mark humanity’s first lunar return in more than 50 years.

David Ariosto

David Ariosto is a journalist, author, and the host and founder of the Space Watch Daily podcast. He has spent more than two decades covering emerging geopolitical issues, technological trends, and the forces between them, working across more than 50 countries. He is currently working on a Knopf-Doubleday book project focused on the gripping saga of the second great Space Race.