Another Reminder that Spaceflight is Difficult. Starship Prototype Explodes and Falls Over
SpaceX’s Starship has been hitting some bumps making its way from the drawing board to space. As the spacecraft element of the Elon Musk’s proposed super-heavy launch system, the Starship will one day become the workhorse of SpaceX, replacing the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launchers. Unfortunately, another Starship prototype recently experienced a structural failure during pressure testing that caused it to explode.
The explosion took place at around 11:00 p.m. EST (0:800 p.m. PST) on Feb. 28th, about an hour after ground crews began loading simulated propellant (liquid nitrogen) into the SN1 prototype. It was here that the liquid oxygen tank violently burst, causing the entire launch vehicle to be tossed a few dozen meters into the air before it came crashing down and burst again on the launch pad.
This was the second time in the past six months that SpaceX lost a prototype vehicle during load testing. This process consists of filling the liquid methane and liquid oxygen (LOX) propellant tanks with a cryogenic liquid to ensure they can withstand being fully-pressurized. The last accident occurred back in November, when the Mk. 1 prototype blew up on the pad, casting its nose cone into the air.
This time around, the SN1 prototype (which had not yet had its nose cone or Raptor engines installed) appeared to have come apart near the bottom. This caused the upper section to be launched into the air and the hull to implode. The top section then came down on its side and experienced a second explosion, this time from the top.
This second explosion was clearly the methane tank (also pressurized with liquid nitrogen), which then shot off and flew about 150 to 300 meters (500 – 1000 ft) from the pad. Several observers who were on the scene captured the explosion on video – including famed NASASpaceFlight member BocaChicaGal, who captured the video shown above.
Mercifully, no injuries have been reported in the area. But the next day, photos taken of the site revealed that very little was left of the SN1 prototype. And while the company did not issue a statement immediately thereafter, Musk responded to the incident on Monday morning (March 2nd) by uploaded a video of the accident on his official Twitter account (shown above).
In true Musk fashion, he also made some cheeky comments that let his followers know that SpaceX was taking this latest setback in stride. In the original Tweet, the video appears with the caption, “So… how was your night?” He later added, “It’s fine, we’ll just buff it out,” and “Where’s the Flextape when you need it?”
No word has been given yet how this might affect the overall development of the Starship and Super Heavy launch system. However, it will mean some changes in terms of time tables. Prior to the accident, Musk had indicated that the SN1 was intended for a full wet dress rehearsal (WDR) with LOX and methane, which was to be followed by a static fire test with a Raptor engine.
Obviously, that won’t be happening anymore. However, Musk has also confirmed that his crews are currently focused on finishing work on the next Starship prototype (SN2). If all goes well, SpaceX’s ground crews could have the SN2 assembled and ready for testing within a few weeks.