Elon Musk: SpaceX’s out-of-control spacecraft struggled to self-destruct

During its short first flight more than a week ago, the giant spacecraft rocket built by SpaceX created an unexpected “rock hurricane” at launch, and several engines failed as it headed upwards before spiraling out of control.

Then, Elon Musk, the company’s founder, said in an update delivered during a Twitter voice chat Saturday night, the end of the ride was even more stressful than it should have been. The automated self-destruct command did not immediately destroy the spacecraft. Instead, 40 seconds passed before the missile finally exploded.

Despite everything that went wrong, Mr. Musk considered the launch of the Starship a success.

“It’s obviously not a complete success, but it’s still a hit nonetheless,” he said.

He said the aim of the test flight was to “learn a lot, and we learned a lot,” and that more test flights are planned this year.

The spacecraft, the most powerful ever launched, is central to SpaceX’s goals of flying humans to Mars, as well as NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2025 as part of the Artemis program.

Although the rocket didn’t make it to space, “the result was roughly what I expected, and may have slightly exceeded my expectations,” Mr. Musk said, noting that he “ditched the platform with minimal damage to the platform.”

At the same time, he admitted that the launch was launched debris across a wide area The resulting clouds of dust reached a small town miles from the launch pad in the southern tip of Texas.

Three of the 33 engines in the Starship’s boost stage shut down before the rocket left the launch pad.

“The system didn’t think they were healthy enough to make them well, so they locked them out,” Musk said.

The loss of all three engines caused the Starship to lean to the side as it headed upwards. “We don’t usually expect lean,” Mr. Musk said. “You should actually be going straight.”

Twenty-seven seconds after launch, something went wrong with one of the engines—”some kind of vigorous action occurred,” Mr. Musk said—and it damaged several other nearby engines.

“The rocket just kept going,” Musk said. It was 85 seconds into flight, Mr. Musk said, “where things really hit the propeller,” when the rocket lost its ability to steer its direction by pointing at the engine nozzles.

From that point on, the missile began flying out of control and continued even after the finish order.

“It took a long time to tear the tanks apart,” Mr. Musk said of the flight termination system, which is intended to destroy an out-of-control missile. The delay demonstrated the resilience of the rocket, which remained intact as it fell.

“It looks like the structural margins of the car are better than we expected,” Musk said.

For the next launch, he said, more explosives could be added to ensure that “the missile would detonate immediately if a flight termination was necessary.”

The other unexpected surprise was the shattering of concrete under the rocket upon launch.

The unexpected thrust of 30 engines created a “rock tornado” that scattered debris across hundreds of acres and created a giant dust cloud.

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“Basically a man-made sandstorm,” Mr. Musk said. “But we don’t want to do that again.”

Instead of the rocket’s 33 engines firing directly at the concrete below the rocket on takeoff, a large steel plate with water cooling will be installed. Mr. Musk said the tablet was not ready for launch last week.

He said the next rocket and launchpad repairs would be ready in six to eight weeks. However, the FAA, which regulates rocket launches, is investigating the events of the first launch and will have to be satisfied with SpaceX’s tweaks and improvements before another Starship flight is allowed.

The next launch will attempt to achieve the objectives of the first mission – for the Starship to successfully separate from the booster and reach space before orbiting most of the planet and landing in waters off Hawaii.

Mr. Musk did not promise complete success on the second try. He said he expects four or five more Starship aircraft to be launched this year. “We’ll probably have an 80% chance of getting into orbit this year,” Musk said. “I don’t want to tempt fate, but I think there is almost a 100% chance of getting into orbit within 12 months.”

Mr. Musk said SpaceX was spending “$2 billion” on Starship this year and would not need additional investment to develop the rocket.

One of the main uses of the Starship will be as a lunar lander during NASA’s Artemis III mission, which is to take astronauts to the lunar surface near the South Pole. Mr. Musk has confidently asserted that the Starship will be ready before other components like the Space Launch System rocket that NASA is building. “We will never be a limiting factor,” he said.

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He also emphasized the technical challenges that SpaceX is trying to overcome in producing a giant spacecraft that can be quickly re-landed repeatedly, something like a jet plane.

“This is definitely a candidate for the most difficult technical problem that humans have ever done,” Musk said.

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