The spectacular explosion of SpaceX’s new Starship rocket minutes after it soared off its launch pad on a first flight test is the latest vivid illustration of a “successful failure” business formula that serves Elon Musk’s company well, experts said on Thursday.
Rather than seeing the fiery disintegration of Musk’s colossal, next-generation Starship system as a setback, experts said the dramatic loss of the rocket ship would help accelerate development of the vehicle.
Images of the Starship tumbling out of control some 20 miles up in the sky while mounted to its Super Heavy rocket booster before the combined vehicle blew to bits dominated media coverage of the highly anticipated launch.
SpaceX acknowledged that several of the Super Heavy’s 33 powerful Raport engines malfunctioned on ascent and that the booster rocket and Starship failed to separate as designed before the ill-fated flight was terminated.
But SpaceX executives including Musk – the founder, CEO and chief engineer of the California-based rocket company – hailed the test flight for achieving the major objective of getting the vehicle off the ground while providing a wealth of data that will advance Starship’s development.
At least two experts in aerospace engineering and planetary science who spoke with Reuters agreed that the test flight delivered benefits.
“This is a classical SpaceX successful failure,” said Garrett Reisman, an astronautical engineering professor at the University of Southern California who is a former NASA astronaut and is also a senior adviser to SpaceX.
Reisman called the Starship test flight a hallmark of a SpaceX strategy that sets Musk’s company apart from traditional aerospace companies and even NASA by “this embracing of failure when the consequences of failure are low.”
No astronauts were aboard for the crewless flight, and the rocket was flown almost entirely over water from the Gulf Coast Starbase facility in south Texas to avoid possible injuries or property damage on the ground from falling debris.
“Even though that rocket costs a lot of money, what really costs a lot of money are people’s salaries,” Reisman told Reuters in an interview hours after Thursday’s launch.
Reisman said SpaceX saves more money in the long run, and takes less time to identify and correct engineering flaws by taking more risks in the development process rather than keeping “a large team working for years and years and years trying to get it perfect before you even try it.”
“I would say the timeline for transporting people (aboard Starship) is accelerated right now compared to what it was a couple of hours ago,” Reisman said.
Planetary scientist Tanya Harrison, a fellow at the University of British Columbia’s Outer Space Institute, said clearing the launch tower and ascending through a critical point known as maximum aerodynamic pressure were major feats on the first flight of such a large, complex launch system.
“It’s part of the testing process,” she said in an interview. “There are a lot of accidents that happen when you’re trying to design a new rocket. The fact that it launched at all made a lot of people really happy.”
She said the risks of a single flight test were small in comparison to the ambitious gains at stake.
“This is the biggest rocket that humanity has tried to build,” she said, adding that it is designed to carry “orders of magnitude” more cargo and people to and from deep space than any existing spacecraft.
Whereas NASA is working on a mission to retrieve samples of Martian soil and minerals measured in kilograms being collected by the Mars Perseverance rover, Starship will carry back many tons of rock, as well transport dozens of astronauts and entire lab facilities to and from the moon and Mars, Harrison said.
Musk has billed Starship as crucial to SpaceX’s interplanetary exploration goals as well as its more near-term launch business, with commercial satellites, science telescopes and eventually paying astro-tourists expected to use the fully reusable rocket system for rides to space.
Citing SpaceX’s rapid pace of development since its 2002 founding, leading to dozens of commercial missions a year with its workhorse rocket for low-Earth orbit, the Falcon 9, Harrison said, “it wouldn’t surprise me if we had humans on Mars with Starship in the next decade.”