Third time’s the charm? SpaceX hopes rocket launch goes as planned

SpaceX will attempt to launch its 122-metre tall — or 37-storey — mega-rocket on its third test flight on Thursday. 

The Starship rocket is SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s pet project that he says will not only be able to spit out ever more Starlink satellites but also eventually take humans to Mars. 

But the bigger, more pressing goal is to prove that Starship will be ready for NASA’s Artemis III mission to the moon, slated to launch in 2026.

A variation of the SpaceX vessel, called the Human Landing System (HLS), will be critical to putting humans on the lunar surface. In order to do so, SpaceX needs to clear a number of hurdles, including demonstrating a ship-to-ship transfer of fuel.

But so far, Starship has seen only incremental achievements.

This launch is referred to as Starship’s integrated flight test three (IFT-3), as it is the third time that both the booster and the spaceship itself are being launched together.

From the public’s perspective, IFT-1 and IFT-2 were unmitigated failures. 

In the firstlast April, the rocket cleared its gargantuan tower before blowing up just four minutes later — Musk and his fans like to use the term “a rapid unscheduled disassembly” — before the booster stage and spaceship could separate.

And that was only what happened in the air. 

Back on terra firma, the aftermath was vast. Because IFT-1 went up without a launch suppression system at the pad — something to soften the fiery blast and shockwave — its 33 engines left an enormous crater below the launch pad. Debris was scattered for kilometres, leading to a barrage of recommendations from federal officials about how to best minimize the harm to the surrounding ecosystem by future launches. 

The second test flight, last November, had a suppression system in place and caused minimal damage to the pad. The rocket successfully lifted off and the two stages managed to separate successfully — a demonstration of a new way of separation called “hot staging.” 

Unfortunately, the first stage was lost in an explosion. The second managed to make it into space, reaching 149 kilometres, before it, too, exploded.

While explosions aren’t something the public typically deems as achievements, that’s not the way space watchers necessarily see it. And certainly not SpaceX.

It deemed IFT-1 a success because it cleared the pad without exploding.

The second was touted as a success for proving that hot-staging — when the second stage booster ignites as the first separates — worked. And, as Musk said later, the second stage reached space before exploding.

But with Artemis III breathing down its neck, SpaceX needs to rack up more concrete wins.

Engineer and former NASA official Dan Dumbacher is hesitant to label the past Starship launches as either successes or failures.

WATCH | Starship critical for planned Mars mission:

What does the explosion of the SpaceX rocket mean for the Mars mission?

The SpaceX Starship rocket is a critical part of NASA’s plans. CBC’s science reporter Nicole Mortillaro explains why the explosion of the massive rocket isn’t hampering plans to send astronauts to Mars.

“If I had been looking at it with my old NASA badge on in my old NASA world, they’re failures, because NASA has to operate in an environment where [they’ve] got, as I say, 536 investors watching over my shoulder, making sure I’m using public money appropriately,” he said.

For SpaceX and others in the private sector, it’s “a little bit of a different ball game,” said Dumbacher, who is now CEO of the  American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“When you have Elon, or [Jeff Bezos] funding things, the buck all stops with them” — their private money allows them to operate differently, being somewhat less risk averse than NASA.

But with NASA relying on the triumph of commercial entities, things begin to change: progress needs to be made.

Paul Fjeld, who collaborated with NASA during the Apollo program, is confident that despite the enormous challenges ahead, SpaceX can rise to the occasion, though perhaps not in the current timeline.

“The engineering chops are there, and that’s been demonstrated since the start of it,” he said. 

WATCH | Second test flight ends in explosions:

SpaceX Starship test flight fails minutes after launch

SpaceX’s uncrewed spacecraft Starship, developed to carry astronauts to the moon and beyond, was presumed to have failed in space minutes after lifting off. Saturday’s launch was a second test, after its first attempt to reach space ended in an explosion.

What to expect with IFT-3

For IFT-3, SpaceX has a few specific objectives. As always, reaching suborbit for the first time — not orbit, technically, as Starship is meant to splash down in the Indian Ocean without circling the globe — is a big one. 

But it also plans to test Starship’s payload bay doors and, possibly, the fuel transfer system within the spaceship itself, a sort of precursor to the ship-to-ship transfer needed for Artemis III.

SpaceX might also look at the tiles, many of which were missing on the vessel after the second launch. The tiles are crucial to protect the spaceship from the intense heat of re-entry, as was made clear during the age of NASA’s space shuttle program.

In order to reach NASA’s safety requirements, SpaceX’s HLS system will need to see close to 14 complete successful launches, and those won’t be based on SpaceX’s metric of “success.” They all must be unqualified successes.

Seeing as this is just the third flight of the integrated system, it seems there’s a long way to go. 

Not that it’s completely out of reach. Musk recently said the company has applied for nine Starship launches in 2024. And SpaceX’s Star Base in Boca Chica, Texas, is always a hub of activity with boosters and Starships stacked up in rows.

“The thing that Musk does better than probably anybody else in any industry is to scale up and produce things at scale, in large quantities very quickly,” Fjeld said.  

“I think he could easily you know, fly again in two months, and then a month-and-a-half, and then a month later, and then every week for the rest of the year at the end.”

For now, all eyes will be on what happens during IFT-3, to see if SpaceX achieves the milestones set out before it, and if it can collect enough data to fly again in rapid succession.

If SpaceX can’t, seeing new boot prints on the moon may be farther off than NASA or other space-watchers may like.

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