Rocket Failures: Starship's Explosion

Ethan Wong

April 21, 2023

Many rockets have experienced great catastrophes on maiden flights, and it is not guaranteed that a newly designed launch vehicle will flawlessly reach space without multiple launch attempts following minor problems or an explosion. Atlas A had two failed launch attempts before its third flight succeeded, and Atlas B followed that by having its first flight fail. Atlas D failed multiple times on several occasions, yet was able to see great success afterward; despite constant failures in the earlier models and builds of the Atlas rocket, 1965 began the series of immense improvements and a huge success rate. 

Starship was a highly anticipated rocket that launched on April 20th, 2023, and left everyone in shock as it exploded. Despite having 33 methane-powered raptor engines–giving the rocket a substantial amount more thrust than the Saturn V–it never reached space and was seen as both a huge let-down to SpaceX and the public, but also room for multiple improvements. 

Because Starship is intended to travel to Mars and back to Earth in the future, Elon Musk and SpaceX have worked on launching their rocket without the need for flame diverters, as they wouldn’t be able to create a launch pad for the rocket on Mars like they would from Earth. Consequently, many observers and SpaceX engineers noted that the removal of a flame diverter caused a lot of concrete debris to be thrown up at the rocket during the launch, which could explain why 3 of the raptor engines failed during the launch. 

One of the main objectives for the launch was to test Starship’s stage separation while traveling in the air. However, the Starship Super Heavy Booster (second stage) failed to disconnect from the first stage and the rocket started to spin around after reaching its apex height, signaling a loss of control. Many views of the rocket failure online can provide videos of the launch, showing how Starship almost flipped 180 degrees and kept spinning out of control as it started to drift down back into the atmosphere. Because all of the propellant in the second stage of the rocket was still present due to the failed stage separation, the rocket had unequal weight in the upper half while falling horizontally (concentrated on one side essentially), causing the entire structure to be compromised and create an explosion. 

Many speculations are continuing to be made about the explosion, and it raises multiple questions about Starship’s reliability and capabilities in its journey to send humans to the red planet. Despite this, Starship tests and various prototypes have had many failures in the past. On May 29th, 2020, Starship SN4 failed. After this, SpaceX worked to create several new improvements from the explosions, creating Starship SN8 which didn’t explode during liftoff, as well as Starship SN10 which was able to land–unlike SN8–but exploded directly afterward. For SpaceX, Starshop’s failure can also be marked as a journey toward refinement, as it will pave for new improvements and designs that will ultimately repair the rocket for its transportation of humans to Mars.