‘Mars, here we come!’ reads a tweet from Elon Musk in the wake of the SN8 rocket explosion going viral.
Elon Musk is no stranger to bragging. Whilst these brags are often unfounded or overstated, on this occasion it is different. Usually spending $216 million on a 6 minute flight, ending in a fireball would seem like a waste of money. SpaceX did this, somewhat knowingly, and chalked it up as a victory. And not without reason, either. Firstly, Nasa footed $130 million of the bill, easing the effect on the coffers of SpaceX. Secondly, and most importantly, it was always likely, and yet was a risk worth taking. The rocket, 16 stories tall and powered by 3 car sized raptor engines, was able to fly 7.8 miles in the air. Next, once due to land, the true ingenuity kicks in: the Starship ‘belly-flops’ its way down to earth, in order to maximize drag and reduce speed. Unfortunately – as teenagers jumping into pools are well aware – a belly flop doesn’t usually lead to the softest landing. Therefore the rocket has to do a ‘flip’ manouvre, in order to give a remote chance of a safe landing. The good news was, the flip took place without incident, and SpaceX have gained immensely useful data in order to fine tune this going forward.
If this flip was so successful, why the huge explosion you may be asking?
This was caused by insufficient fuel pressure, resulting in excess oxygen being burnt in place of fuel. Apparently this is a relatively easy (within the context of ‘rocket science’) problem to fix. Reusable rockets are essential to both bringing down the cost of space travel, and to make longer term exploration a reality. Naturally, a bit of trial and error is needed to climb this hurdle.
In a side note, the successor, SN9, hit a small snag this week. Just 2 days after the aforementioned successful trip of SN8, the rocket tilted 10 degrees off course (whilst in the assembly bay). Fortunately it held up, propped against some scaffolding. Analysts say if it had fallen in the other direction, it would have destroyed a section of factory, along with dozens of workers inside.
We appreciate Elon’s optimism - normally one rocket exploding and another falling over wouldn’t constitute a win, but on this occasion we’ll let it slide.