SpaceX’s Starship launch was like a bomb that destroyed the launch pad

SpaceX's Starship launch was like a bomb that destroyed the launch pad

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SpaceX launched its Starship rocket earlier this week amid much fanfare and anticipation. The rocket, which took off without any protection for the launch site, left a huge crater in its wake and destroyed the base of the launch tower. With the ‘dust’ clearing after the historic launch, speculation is rife as to why the Starship’s first and second stages could not separate after liftoff, with some even suggesting that the rocket would have to ‘flip’ before the second stage could separate. The latter provide enough force to safely race away from the super heavy booster.

Elon Musk admits SpaceX miscalculated the impact of a Starship launch on pad concrete

SpaceX’s Starship rocket uses 33 engines for liftoff, making it currently the world’s only super-heavy rocket other than NASA’s Space Launch System. This allows the rocket to generate millions of pounds of force, more than NASA’s Saturn V rocket that sent humans to the moon. While the Falcon Heavy is also rated to launch into orbit over 50 tons (NASA’s official classification for a super heavy rocket), it has yet to launch such a payload despite being in operation for several years.

The starship’s thrust, said to be as much as 17 million pounds, would enable the rocket to lift 250 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO) if its upper stage was expendable. The thrust also requires shielding at the launch site, and SpaceX’s decision earlier this week to launch without a shield made the launch site look as if a bomb had exploded.

Footage from several sources shows a large crater at the base of the launch tower. Orbital launch mount (a ‘stand’ for a 394 ft tall rocket) was unrecognizable After the smoke cleared and footage of the launch site circulated on the internet.

Pictures of the launch pad show that all the concrete beneath it was blown away by the rocket, as the soil and dirt beneath it is clearly visible. Independent cameras covering the event revealed huge dust clouds and Fragments of concrete flying By air shortly after the launch near the pad, residents of nearby Port Isabel reported ‘gunpowder-like’ dust falling from the sky and covering vehicles.

Naturally, this force of impact should have been predicted by SpaceX – not least because of the potential impact it would have had on its orbital test launch. The FAA allowed SpaceX to launch only one flight, raising the stakes for the launch attempt.

In fact, speculation is rife on Internet forums about a launch pad mishap that caused the rocket’s first and second stages to fail to separate after crossing the point of maximum aerodynamic pressure. While the launch was successful because the starship flew as far as it did, the fact that the pad (and not the rocket) in the upper stage may have contributed to it not making it into orbit is a bit of a letdown. There is some speculation that chunks of concrete from the pad damaged the rocket’s engine and maneuvers, preventing it from accurately maintaining its flight path and critical maneuvers.

Additionally, unverified sources on internet forums claim that the starship has a very radical design for stage separation. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 separates the first and second stages via a pusher mechanism that ejects the second stage after the booster’s outer ring engines shut down. In opposition to this, the starship would ‘flip’ a stunning 270 degrees using the internal engines capable of gimbaling, and at this point, the internal engines would shut down, and the starship’s second stage would separate.

This theory has also been promoted by SpaceX presenters John Insprucker and Kate Tice during launch tests. At the 2:47 mark, ground control teams confirmed cutoff of the booster engines, but footage of the launch still showed some engines still firing, with Mr. Inspraker announcing that the starship “Start the flip to separate the stage

After this, the rocket completed about two ‘rotations,’ but Tice seemed quite calm at the 3:23 mark when she simply shared that SpaceX “Waiting for the stage to separate” This suggests that the flip was expected as part of the stage separation during the launch. At this point, the booster’s engines continued, and after about ten seconds the inspector added:

Yes Kate right now it looks like we’ve seen the start of the flip, but apparently we’re seeing from the ground camera that the entire starship stack continues to rotate. We would have split up by now. Obviously, this does not seem to be a common situation.

Coming back to the pad damage, SpaceX chief Elon Musk admitted that his firm had underestimated the damage the pad could do during a full-scale launch. Musk shared In a tweet:

3 months ago, we started building a large water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount. Wasn’t ready on time and we wrongly thought based on static fire data that Fondag would make it through 1 launch. Looks like we may be ready to relaunch in 1 to 2 months.

He added that the Raptor engine flames disintegrated the concrete rather than erasing it—suggesting that perhaps SpaceX expected the latter to happen. A water-cooled steel plate will have water flowing underneath it to dissipate the heat of the rocket. The design of a rocket launch pad is complex, affecting the mass that can be carried into orbit. This is because the vehicle must be strong enough to withstand the shockwaves reflecting off the ground and running up the sides of the rocket. Adding strength means adding more mass, which then reduces payload capacity.

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