What will happen to the SpaceX Starship after the dramatic first launch

Starship will launch for the first time with the Super Heavy booster from Texas on April 20, 2023.


The dust has settled in Texas, but work is already underway to clean up the world’s most powerful rocket and get it ready for its next flight in a few months.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its fully-stacked Starship for the first time just over a week ago. While the nearly 400-foot-tall vehicle flew for more than three minutes, achieving several milestones for a rocket of unprecedented scale, the Starship also lost several engines during launch, caused serious damage to ground infrastructure, and ultimately failed to reach space after the rocket began to crash and was intentionally destroyed in midair.

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As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Thursday, SpaceX “blew a hole in that launch pad.”

The company hopes to launch another Starship rocket as soon as June or July, but that timeline depends on a variety of factors, including repairs, regulatory signatures and the readiness of the next prototype.

Damage to the launch site

Debris is seen on the ground on April 22, 2023, after SpaceX’s Starship liftoff on April 20 for a flight test from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

Patrick T. Fallon | Afp | Getty Images

The biggest obstacle to a second launch attempt can be the dreaded cleanup.

Soon after launch, SpaceX began the process of cleaning up the launch pad and assessing the damage to its infrastructure. Photos taken by onlookers show the violent aftermath of the superheavy booster’s engines gouging a crater in the ground and shattering debris into the launch tower, nearby tanks and other ground equipment.

“I’m asking to let you know that today SpaceX is still saying that they think it will take at least two months to rebuild the launch pad and at the same time about two months to get their second vehicle ready for launch,” NASA. manager Nelson told lawmakers Thursday in an update on the company’s timeline for the return flight.

The space agency has a vested interest in Starship’s success, as NASA awarded SpaceX a nearly $3 billion contract in 2021 to use the rocket to land astronauts on the moon as part of the Artemis program.

A member of the public walks through a field of debris near the launch pad on April 22, 2023, after the SpaceX Starship took off from Starbase Boca Chica, Texas on April 20.

Patrick T. Fallon | Afp | Getty Images

SpaceX management said several times before the launch that the failure of the launch pad to blow up would be considered a successful first launch. But the infrastructure still took a hit. In a series of tweets after the launch, Musk described significant damage to the company-built concrete launch pad and said he hoped the rocket hadn’t damaged the mount supporting it too badly before launch.

“All that’s left of the concrete side support beam is rebar!” Musk said.

On April 22, 2023, after the SpaceX Starship took off for a flight test from Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas, debris litters the launch pad and damaged tanks (R in back).

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

The company’s CEO added that it was “still early” in SpaceX’s analysis, but conceded that “the force of the engines when they were fired could have broken the concrete, not just crushed it.” When SpaceX briefly tested the booster’s 33 Raptor engines before launch, Musk said “the engines were only at half the thrust” that had previously avoided tearing a hole in the ground.

One possible solution: Musk said SpaceX is “building a massive water-cooled steel plate that would go under the launch pad.” He said the slab was not “in time” for the first attempt and admitted the company “mistakenly thought” the concrete would survive the launch.

Regulatory review

A cloud of dust rises beneath the Starship as the rocket launches its Super Heavy booster from Texas on April 20, 2023.


SpaceX’s launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration was the long-awaited final step in getting Starship off the ground, so the regulator’s investigation into that first flight is a major overhang for the second.

The Starship test flight drew feedback from the FAA, which is effectively the main federal regulator for SpaceX’s rocket program. As is standard for a launch “anomaly” like this airburst, the FAA opened an investigation into the flight and its fallout. The move grounds future Starship launches pending the conclusion of the investigation and allows SpaceX to move forward with the license the regulator granted the company earlier this month.

“The return to flight of the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA’s determination that any system, process or procedure involved in the accident does not affect public safety,” the agency said in an April 20 statement. Starship launch and subsequent explosion.

Members of the public walk through a field of debris near the launch pad on April 22, 2023, after the SpaceX Starship lifted off from Starbase Boca Chica, Texas on April 20.

Patrick T. Fallon | Afp | Getty Images

In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed this week that the Starship launch caused a 3.5-acre fire on land owned by Boca Chica State Park in Texas. The FWS found no dead wildlife on local refuge lands, which are habitat for endangered species, but found that the missile’s destructive force threw concrete and metal “thousands of feet” and created a cloud of dust and powdered concrete that fell that far. 6.5 miles from the launch site.

“Rich in Hardware”

A SpaceX Starship prototype sits in the bay at SpaceX Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas on April 18, 2023.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

One piece of SpaceX’s second attempt is already largely in place: the production pipeline for another Starship prototype.

The company had planned to launch the first Starship and Super Heavy booster flights as early as the summer of 2021, but President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said recently that the inaugural flight was delayed in part because the company was focusing on “the manufacturing system that will build the ship.” The company has been steadily expanding its Starbase facility in recent years.

Thanks to the many enthusiasts live-streaming every minute of SpaceX’s work in South Texas, it’s clear the company has 10 more Starship prototypes in various stages of assembly, as well as seven more Super Heavy boosters.

Nelson was touted as much before members of Congress, explaining how the company approaches rocket development differently than the space agency.

“Now understand the explosion, it’s not a big drop in the way SpaceX does things. They’re rich in hardware, which means a lot of these rockets are ready to go, and that’s the way they operate — they launch if something happens . wrong they figure out what it is, they go back and run it again,” Nelson said.

As with any rocket development program, and especially the largest ever assembled, SpaceX’s timeline for the next Starship flight is likely to evolve and change.

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