SpaceX recently conducted a cryogenic pressure test on the Mk1 prototype of its Starship space vehicle at its Boca Chica facility in south Texas. The test consisted of loading liquid nitrogen into the fuel tanks of the prototype. Ars Technica describes what happens next.
“About halfway during the process, however, some sort of failure occurred as the top bulkhead of the vehicle broke apart and went flying away. This was followed by a large, white cloud of smoke and vapor emanating from the interior of the vehicle, which eventually cleared to reveal a dented, but still shiny Starship. “
Popular Mechanics added that the upper part of the bulkhead flew hundreds of feet into the air before falling back to Earth. Some buckling occurred in the main part of the rocket which spewed a cloud of vapor and liquid.
SpaceX was seemingly unfazed by the catastrophic accident. A spokesperson noted, “The purpose of today’s test was to pressurize systems to the max, so the outcome was not completely unexpected. There were no injuries, nor is this a serious setback.” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk noted that the Mk1 had served its purpose as a test article, but that now the company will concentrate on the flight-ready test article, the Mk3.
The Starship represents the hopes of SpaceX to become a true, space-faring private company. The spacecraft is planned to be launched on top of an even larger rocket called the Superheavy. With on-orbit refueling, the Starship is designed to deliver 100 metric tons to the moon or Mars. The spacecraft is envisioned to be part of Elon Musk’s long term dream to build a settlement on Mars. Just a few days before the accident, NASA chooses the rocket as part of its program to employ private companies to deliver payloads to the lunar surface. The Starship is designed to deliver cargo and people to the moon and Mars and then return to Earth, making it a truly reusable space vehicle.
SpaceX has a very aggressive test schedule for Starship. The company wants to fly the spacecraft in Earth orbit in 2020. Then Starship would land with a hold of cargo on the lunar surface in 2022. In 2023 the rocket would fly a crew of humans around the moon. Everything leads to a lunar landing with human beings by 2024, the space year that NASA intends to land human beings on the moon. Indeed, many space policy experts have advocated that the space agency abandon its current approach, using the super expensive Space Launch System rocket and throw its full support to SpaceX and Starship.
The question arises, how does the accident affect SpaceX’s ambitious schedule. Ars Technica suggests that it should not have a significant effect at all.
“The key to grasping why SpaceX can afford an accident like this is to understand its iterative design philosophy. Under this approach to the design of spaceflight hardware, the company builds vehicles, tests them, and flies them as quickly as possible. And if they fail, as often happens, SpaceX fixes them. This is especially true of the Starship program in which teams of SpaceX engineers in Texas and Florida are separately building prototypes of Starship to learn from them and then improve the design in subsequent versions.”
In other words, the SpaceX approach involves building and testing aggressively to the point of failure, which is sometimes spectacular, learning from the failure, and then pressing on. The approach results in a much more rapid development process.
NASA, on the other hand, because it is a political agency, is forced to follow a slower, cautious, and expensive approach to develop flight hardware. NASA has to test and retest every component of a rocket before assembling it. If the space agency suffers a catastrophic failure, especially when people are involved such as the case of Challenger, Columbia, and the Apollo Fire, it has to spend many months answering its political masters. Some of those politicians do not have the best interests of NASA at heart and try to use the failure to cancel the program.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has expressed admiration for SpaceX’s approach to hardware development. He seemed wistful that NASA cannot follow the same methods. However, the current space agency has been outsourcing a lot of its new development to companies like SpaceX which can afford a few explosions on the way to new spacecraft.