SpaceX’s Starship exploded not once but twice during its historic second launch on Saturday, November 18. While it’s easy to get distracted by these ongoing failures, it’s clear that SpaceX is making progress with its oversized launch vehicle and that a third flight is bound to take the rocket even further along in development.
The megarocket took to the skies at 8:02 a.m. ET on Saturday, its first flight since the incident-riddled debut launch on April 20. By 8:11 a.m., the mission was over, with both the booster and upper stage destroyed in separate incidents. The mission was supposed to last for 90 minutes, with the upper stage performing an easterly suborbital flight all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
Not an ideal outcome, but the test “will provide invaluable data” for the company to “continue rapidly developing Starship,” SpaceX said in an update. Indeed, some key milestones were met, and the south Texas launch mercifully did seem far less chaotic than the first. Here’s what needs to happen before we get to see Starship fly for a third time.
Gotta nail stage separation
The second Starship launch was punctuated by a particularly dramatic moment just after two minutes into the flight. This was when the company attempted hot-staging for the first time, a maneuver unprecedented for a rocket of this scale. I and many others anticipated that this phase of the mission carried the highest risk of failure.
During this critical moment, the upper stage Starship successfully ignited its Raptor engines before detaching from the booster, which simultaneously powered down all but three of its engines. This coordination allowed the two stages to separate smoothly, with the booster executing a flip maneuver for its return to Earth, while the upper stage proceeded toward suborbital space.
However, the booster did not make it back successfully (it was supposed to splash down in the ocean). The Super Heavy exploded some 56 miles (90 kilometers) above the Gulf of Mexico, more than three and a half minutes into the flight. On a more positive note, “All 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy Booster started up successfully and, for the first time, completed a full-duration burn during ascent,” SpaceX said. At least six booster engines failed during the first demo in April.
The reason behind the latest failure is still unclear, but it is possible that the hot-staging process placed excessive stress on the booster, triggering a chain of failures that culminated in its explosive demise. Following the stage separation, the Super Heavy executed a notably aggressive flip maneuver, which may have led to issues with relighting its Raptor engines, possibly the result of propellant sloshing or damage, as noted by the Orbital Index. Additionally, the Orbital Index highlighted that engines drawing tank pressurization gas instead of actual propellant are prone to highly destructive behavior. SpaceX now faces the challenge of identifying the root cause, which could lie in the hot-staging sequence or the hardware involved, or a combination of the two. Addressing these issues will be crucial for the company’s future missions.
Figuring out why the upper stage failed
Following stage separation, the upper stage, with its six Raptor engines working, continued on its journey toward its final destination—a hard splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. Things appeared to be working nicely, until they weren’t; SpaceX lost contact with the rocket, and the explosion followed soon after.
“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, as we were headed downrange out over the Gulf of Mexico,” John Insprucker, SpaceX’s principal integration engineer, explained during the company’s live broadcast.
Starship flew to an altitude of approximately 93 miles (about 150 kilometers) and attained a velocity of around 14,913 miles per hour (nearly 24,000 kilometers per hour). This feat signified the first Starship to enter outer space and nearly achieve a full-duration burn, according to SpaceX.
“The flight test’s conclusion came when telemetry was lost near the end of second stage burn prior to engine cutoff after more than eight minutes of flight,” SpaceX explained. “The team verified a safe command destruct was appropriately triggered based on available vehicle performance data.”
The reason for the loss of signal has not yet been disclosed. Spaceflight enthusiast Scott Manley’s observant analysis suggests that the failure of the upper stage could have been caused by a leak in its oxygen tank. The upper stage’s failure at this phase of the mission came as a complete surprise to me, and I am very curious to learn the cause of this unexpected event.
Back to the FAA
SpaceX will need to procure a third Starship launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration. This necessary step is standard practice, given that the vehicle was lost. To move forward, SpaceX and the FAA will jointly conduct an investigation to uncover the primary cause of the mishap. The focus of the inquiry will be on identifying and rectifying the root cause of the anomalies encountered during the launch, with the goal of preventing similar incidents in future launches.
Despite the loss of the Starship vehicle, there were no reported injuries or damage to public property. Significantly, the Boca Chica launch facility’s newly installed infrastructure, including a water deluge system designed to handle the force of 33 Raptor engines, proved effective.
“The water-cooled flame deflector and other pad upgrades performed as expected, requiring minimal post-launch work to be ready for upcoming vehicle tests and the next integrated flight test,” SpaceX said.
Indeed, immediate post-launch assessments showed that the Starship launch mount remained intact and undamaged, a notable contrast to the April 20 incident in which a lack of protective infrastructure resulted in significant damage to the launch mount. In total, the FAA slapped SpaceX with 63 corrective measures after the botched first flight, including fixes to the self-destruct system, which didn’t work as intended.
An evaluation of the Flight Termination System, which kicked in to destroy the upper stage, will therefore likely be scrutinized following the second flight test. Preliminary indications suggest minimal complications for SpaceX, but the in-depth probe may reveal critical issues that need addressing before the company can perform a third Starship launch.
On to the third test flight
Company CEO Elon Musk announced on X that hardware for the third Starship test flight is expected to be flight-ready in approximately three to four weeks, with three ships currently in the final stages of production. It’s typical for Musk to make such ambitious predictions, but I wouldn’t expect a big delay between launches, and certainly not another 212-day delay as experienced after the first launch.
“Data review is ongoing as we look for improvements to make for the next flight,” SpaceX said in its update. “The team at Starbase is already working final preparations on the vehicles slated for use in Starship’s third flight test, with Ship and Booster static fires coming up next.”
As to what we can expect during the fourth flight, who knows. SpaceX iteratively improves its rockets, learning from its failures. Full mission success, while desirable, is probably not feasible given the experimental nature of the megarocket. A reasonable next goal is simply to see the rocket last for longer than eight minutes and achieve new technological milestones.
Standing nearly 400 feet tall, Starship is designed for full reusability. Once operational, SpaceX will use the rocket to haul cargo and passengers to orbit, the Moon, and elsewhere, while NASA hopes to leverage the upper stage as a human landing system for upcoming Artemis Moon missions.
Want to know more about Elon Musk’s space venture? Check out our full coverage of SpaceX’s Starship megarocket and the SpaceX Starlink internet satellite megaconstellation. And for more spaceflight in your life, follow us on X and bookmark Gizmodo’s dedicated Spaceflight page.
SpaceX’s Starship rocket suffered two explosions during its second launch on November 18, but despite the setbacks, the company is making progress with its development. The test provided valuable data for SpaceX to continue improving the Starship. The first stage of the rocket successfully separated from the upper stage, but the booster did not make it back successfully and exploded. The upper stage also failed and lost contact with SpaceX before exploding. The cause of the failures is still unknown, but SpaceX will need to investigate and rectify the issues before the next launch. Despite the failures, no injuries or damage occurred, and the launch facility’s infrastructure proved effective. SpaceX is already preparing for a third test flight, with flight-ready hardware expected in three to four weeks.