Trial and error is part of success — even if it involves rockets exploding in the sky.
SpaceX captured nationwide attention Thursday morning as its massive Starship rocket lifted off from Southern Texas, and combusted just minutes later over the Gulf of Mexico. But what could be deemed a fiery failure actually provides crucial insight into a landmark rocket that is key to NASA’s plan to return to the moon and possibly beyond, according to aerospace experts.
“Engineers will tell you that they can learn as much from failure as a success,” said Margaret Weitekamp, the chair of the space history department at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington. “There’s always something to be learned from any sort of test. The point at which the ‘failure’ happens tells them something about what was working up to that point, and where things went wrong.”
Praise poured in from rocket watchers and space experts tuned into the launch. Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, congratulated SpaceX and tweeted that “every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward.” French astronaut Thomas Pesquet tweeted: “Never mistake trial for failure.”
How SpaceX succeeded here
Starship lifted off from SpaceX’s launch facility in Boca Chica, Tex., just after 9:30 a.m. Eastern time Thursday morning. About four minutes into its flight time — and 24 miles in the air — the unmanned rocket tumbled, spun out of control and exploded over the Gulf of Mexico.
The sheer scale of Starship, which is deemed the world’s most powerful rocket, and its successful liftoff is a feat in itself. “This is a very large launch vehicle, and bigger can be more complicated to engineer,” Weitekamp said. “It’s very impressive.”
The problems began as SpaceX attempted main engine cutoff and separation. This is a key window for SpaceX engineers: It provides insight into what was working well in the spacecraft, and what wasn’t, and will inform engineers how to ready its future spacecraft for launch.
“It is too soon to speculate what happened there,” Weitekamp said. “Engineers learn a lot from failure, and that’s a part of the engineering process. And having a ‘failure’ at that point still meant that this was a flight that had a number of things go really right.”
The field of space exploration is filled with launches, tests and experiments gone awry.
Weitekamp recalled hearing Simon Ramo, an aerospace engineer, speak at a conference in Washington in the 1990s. He happily described an early launch of his that took off, but quickly went sideways — leaving no option but for a range officer to destroy it.
“He was very pleased,” Weitekamp said. Ramo pointed out that there was great success in his sideways launch: major parts of the rocket clearly worked. “‘The actual propulsion was working. … We now just need to make it go up,’” Weitekamp recalled him saying. “One can always learn from things that literally go sideways.”
Starship’s role in space exploration
Starship is designed to lift large amounts of cargo and, eventually, people, into Earth’s orbit before sending them to the moon and perhaps one day Mars.
Once operational, SpaceX intends to use Starship to launch its Starlink satellites, which beam internet signals to ground stations, providing connectivity in remote and rural areas.
NASA wants to use Starship, too.
In 2021, the U.S. space agency awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use Starship as the spacecraft that would put astronauts on the moon for the first human landing since the last of the Apollo missions in 1972. SpaceX has since won another contract, worth $1.15 billion, for a second landing.
SpaceX’s track record blasting off and blowing up
Falcon 9, the company’s partially reusable launch vehicle, blew up twice — once during a launch of cargo to the International Space Station in 2015 and another time during an engine test while it was on the launchpad a year later.
But SpaceX also lost several Falcon 9 rockets to explosions when the company was still trying to nail landing the system. Today, it may be the most reliable rocket in history, with 61 successful launches last year.
Space exploration won’t be hampered following the Starship combustion Thursday morning — or “rapid unscheduled disassembly” as SpaceX described it.
Elon Musk said “in a few months,” the company will simply try again.