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SpaceX Starship, key to NASA's moon missions, set for next test flight

Image of SpaceX's Starship on its launch pad
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Starship stacked for flight at SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas. NASA plans to use the vehicle to land humans on the moon for the agency's Artemis program.

SpaceX’s mega-rocket Starship is set to take flight once again on a test mission Saturday morning from Boca Chica, Texas. It’s key to NASA’s plan to return humans to the moon and soon may call Florida home.

Starship and its super heavy booster stand at over 400 feet tall, propelled by 33 engines -- all firing in unison. A 20-minute window to launch opens Saturday at 8:00 a.m. ET.

A test flight of the vehicle in April blew up about four minutes into flight and SpaceX plans to try once again to get the massive spacecraft into orbit.

NASA is keeping a watchful eye on the launch as the agency plans to use Starship for its Artemis program, bringing NASA astronauts to the surface of the moon.

Getting back to the moon crucially depends on this this launch, said Philip Metzger, Director of the Stephen Hawking Center at UCF. "We need to see that it can launch, it can do the stage separation, and we want to see the spacecraft do entry and landing to prove that the major functions of the flight are are all up to standard for NASA astronauts."

The Artemis plan

NASA's Artemis program aims to return humans to the moon, the first since the Apollo program of the 1960s and 70s. Artemis I launched a year ago, sending an uncrewed Orion space capsule on test mission around the moon and back. Artemis II will take a crew of four astronauts on a similar orbital mission. SpaceX's Starship could be used as soon as Artemis III to transport humans to the lunar surface.

But first, it must prove it can reach orbit and withstand the heat of atmospheric reentry. An attempt at a test mission in April failed to reach orbit — instead the vehicle tumbled before breaking apart in what SpaceX engineers called a "rapid, unplanned disassembly."

Despite the mid-flight explosion, SpaceX called the test a successful. Metzger said that's how SpaceX operates — quickly learning from mistakes.

"They're very risk tolerant. They can have failures early, they learn rapidly and then repeat. So I really don't think this is a must win," he said. "But it is definitely important that they they make a lot of progress because the Artemis schedule depends on it.”

SpaceX is building a launch pad for Starship at Kennedy Space Center with plans to make Florida the base of operations for the vehicle. Artemis missions also launch from KSC, at the neighboring launchpad of Starship's future home.

'Volcanoes and a spaceship'

The midflight explosion wasn't the only "rapid, unplanned disassembly" during April's test flight. The launchpad experienced significant damage and during launch, the thrust from the vehicle destroyed the concrete pad and sent debris flying for miles.

Image of SpaceX's Super Heavy test firing
SpaceX test fires its Super Heavy booster in February 2023 ahead of the first full Starship test flight a month later. Researcher Philip Metzger collected samples of debris from the April launch for analysis.

Metzger asked people living near the pad to send in samples of the debris and sand, and conducted an analysis on what might have happened to the pad.

Some of that sand fell six miles away from the pad. Metzger's team concluded it came from under the launch pad.

"What we found was that it's comparable to a volcanic explosion. The pressure that was built up under the pad was equal to a volcano and the amount of gas mixed with the rocky material was comparable to volcano," said Metzger.

His research shows that the launchpad cracked under the heat and pressure, and gas was drove into the cracks — causing a volcano-like explosion. Simultaneously, the exhaust from the rocket caused a cloud of water vapor that helped transport the sand over that long distance.

SpaceX modified the launch pad for this upcoming launch, replacing the concrete with steel.

"I think they've completely solved the problem," said Metzger. "We should not have a repeat of the volcanic eruption under a launchpad again."

Updated: November 16, 2023 at 3:47 PM EST
This story was updated with a new launch time and window. SpaceX is now targeting a 20-minute test window opening at 8:00 a.m. ET on Saturday, November 19. Previously, SpaceX was targeting a Friday launch.
Brendan Byrne is WMFE's Assistant News Director, managing the day-to-day operations of the WMFE newsroom, editing daily news stories, and managing WMFE's internship program.

Byrne also hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.
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