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Starship/Superheavy did not explode!

Starship/Superheavy at T+4:02, just after the self-destruct command was issued
Starship/Superheavy at T+4:02, just after the self-destruct command
was issued

In the past twenty-four hours we have another wonderful demonstration of the utter bankruptcy of the American press in the manner in which it has decided to describe yesterday’s first test launch of Starship/Superheavy. Here are just a few headline examples:

Every single one of those headlines implies that the explosion was the launch’s failure. If you read the linked articles you find that many repeat that implication in their reports.

None are correct. The explosion was in fact a successful demonstration of the rocket’s operation and engineering. Every rocket has what is called a flight termination system, designed to allow mission control to manually self-destruct the rocket should it start to fly out of control. As SpaceX explained in a short post-launch notice,

The vehicle experienced multiple engines out during the flight test, lost altitude, and began to tumble. The flight termination system was commanded on both the booster and ship.

In other words, the failures occurred before the self-destruct command was issued, and the explosion was merely the successful initiation of that termination system. The explosion was not the failure, it was actually proof of working engineering.

What makes these headlines more damning to these news sources that many even described the use of the flight termination system, but still implied that the failure was the explosion. Many didn’t even bother to do any research into what happened. Many articles exhibited a complete and almost willful ignorance of the facts. The Verge and the Telegraph articles are a good examples, but they are unfortunately very typical.

This was an engineering test flight of two early prototypes (Starship #24 and Superheavy #7). It was expected that this flight would not go exactly as planned, and in fact it apparently did far better than anyone at SpaceX expected.

SpaceX already has several more-advanced prototypes ready of testing. It was time to fly these early versions, let them get destroyed so that the test data could be gathered and applied to later even more improved versions.

Thus, the explosion at the end of the mission was simply the end of the mission. In fact, it was very apparent during the flight that mission control waited for as long as possible before initiating the self-destruct command in order to collect as much data as possible. It is also likely they waited to make absolutely sure any falling debris would land safely in the Gulf of Mexico.

Furthermore, such self-destruct commands have been issued many times in the same way since Sputnik, including during several launches in only the past two years, including Astra, Relativity, Firefly, and Japan’s H3 rocket. For any major news organization to misconstrue these facts is utterly shameful.

But almost all our major news organizations did exactly that. It appears the ability to report the news accurately and correctly is fading faster and faster with every day.

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  • Mitch S.

    Had the same thought when I saw the headlines.
    But “Spaceship Explodes” is a hotter headline than “Spaceship flight terminated after successfully launching into stratosphere”.
    Reporters are generally ignorant and technically uneducated.
    And I detected some snark – the main stream media doesn’t like successful, hard working, pro-free speech guys like Musk.
    I 100% agree with your point but this is merely a pebble on the mountain of media bias, selectivity and outright lies.

  • Dave

    Geese do not conspire to fly in a V formation. They fly in a V because that’s just what they do.

    In a similar manner perhaps journalists are characterized by their inability to do math, their lack of a sense of comparable magnitudes, and their apparent need to push collectivist political and economic orders.

    I don’t know if it is because in covering the world they are pulled too thin in every direction, or that their guild protects them from the technical or liberty minded aspects of our civilization.

  • Uno El Toro

    Fully in agreement here… Elon’s reaction corroborates this perspective.

  • Marbran

    SpaceX hoped the mission would have completed as planned, but expected something to go wrong. The people cheering and clapping as the Heavy experienced a “rapid, unplanned disassembly” was because they were happy they got the info they wanted to get, as OP stated. Haters always gonna hate.

  • tomglx

    So-called “journalists” are trained ONLY to sell newspapers with ‘splash’ headlines, generally using very loud verbs. They are NOT trained these days to actually understand what they are reporting….because…. thanks to the stupidity of our contemporary quasi-education system — they can’t.

  • Rob of Mendota

    I appreciate the details provided in this article. I did not know these were expendable rocket stages, had not heard about the engines being out, and I did not know that they waited to terminate the flight while they were collecting data. Thanks for this extra information. From the reports in the news, I was led to believe it simply blew up during the first stage and was “fully engulfed in flames”. There is something extremely wrong with this reporting style, almost like they couldn’t care less what actually happened.

  • kim

    what we see as reporters are products of a failed education system, or more illegal alliens hired by far left outlets.

  • Rob of Mendota: Thank you for the kind words. You might consider coming here to my website frequently for more accurate reporting on space. I do it daily, always making an effort to get it right. Moreover, as a space historian who has written award-winning histories on all of the most important events since Sputnik, I have a larger understanding the historical context of daily events, something most modern reporters lack.

  • John

    Does anyone actually expect anything from corporate media to not be sensationalized politicized drivel?

    Pray tell media why did it explode?

    They wouldn’t be able to accurately report a story if it exploded in their face.

  • GaryMike

    Fireworks exploding over similar celebrations get far more respect.

  • Chris

    I must disagree.
    That rocket exploded. Actually If I saw it correctly there were two explosions.
    The sloppy reporting implied that the explosions were not intended OR omitted the fact that the explosions were intended.

    The correct reporting would have noted the intention of the explosion. Therefore headlines something like this make more sense:

    Starship/Superheavy clears tower but flight is terminated later in self destructive explosion.
    Starship/Superheavy assembly climbs to about 24 miles Requires self-destruct resulting in explosion.
    Initial Starship/Superheavy 4 minutes flight ended with flight termination explosion.

  • Chris. Heh. Please note my headline in my post about the test flight:

    Superheavy/Starship clears tower but fails at stage separation

    It seems I took your advice, but did it two days ago.

    My headline in this post was intended quite consciously to exaggerate my point. Of course the rocket exploded, but it didn’t do it as a failure, a distinction that these so-called news organizations should have recognized, and didn’t.

  • David

    Would it have been more accurate to have used “successfully detonated” in the headlines and then in the story’s body explained that the FTS worked as designed following the anomalies that occurred during flight?

  • David

    Ugh… so as to avoid confusion, my question was about the blizzard of headlines in the national media, not a comment about Mr. Zimmerman’s.

  • Devin

    I watched the launch and when the rocker blew up I turned and said to my wife, “they must have hit the self destruct button.” I knew this because I myself have pressed just such a button during a live fire exercise with a HAWK missile that malfunctioned in flight. It is absolutely necessary to have such an ability to destroy guided rockets and missiles, because otherwise you endanger people on the ground if something goes wrong.

  • Trent Castanaveras

    Chris Hadfield delightfully schools an ignorant reporter:

  • Milt

    “We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most critical elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

    Carl Sagan
    from The Demon-Haunted World

  • James Street

    “You might consider coming here to my website frequently for more accurate reporting on space.” – Robert

    Red pilling the normies.
    (19 second red pilling the normies video)

  • Edward

    Trent Castanaveras,
    That was an excellent interview. Thank you for the link.

  • Rastakins

    The flight was a half-success. First stage flew pretty well even though some of its 33 engines failed. A flight termination (intentional tank destruction) was ordered after the stages failed to separate. So the explosion was intentional to limit the hazard caused by the separation failure.

    Few of the mainstream headlines reflected this.

  • Andrew R

    Yellow journalism is everywhere now. There’s more real journalism on blogs, like yours Robert, than anywhere else.
    Focusing on the explosion is the old “If it bleeds, it leads” (ledes?). The explosion is what they wanted to focus on, not the brilliant engineering that got off the pad and 39 km into the air, or that Elon Musk himself gave the flight a 50/50 chance, and would call it a succes if it cleared the pad.

    Thanks to you, Scott Manley and Tim Dodd for the real detailed facts and analysis you provide.

  • Jeff Wright

    Some 8K of the early part of the flight–

    Before structural failure:

    But the libertarian expert here called SLS a poor design—and Starship/SuperHeavy a superior design.

    The word “wrong” isn’t strong enough to describe such bilge either.

    Mr. Z, you owe the SLS workers an apology for trying to put them out of work—in favor on an LV with Peyronie’s disease.

    But that’s okay—I see Elon’s Boring company has done such an excellent job digging half-way to China.

    Mr. Musk just needs a pick-me-up sports movie—about a team that got no respect—but came back stronger:


  • Trent and Edward: It was a good interview, that started poorly for the ancho but ended well. The anchor, who probably knew nothing about rocketry or SpaceX or anything in detail, started with the false narrative that the rocket blew up. Hatfield gently corrected him, right off the bat, and did so by also educating him and the audience. The interviewer then did the proper thing, listened and learned, and then made good follow-up questions. I commend this reporter for this.

    We must also remember that interviewers, even those knowledgeable of the subject at hand, often have to ask obvious questions in order to prompt a good discussion. Sadly, this requirement is now made worse by the insistence that there be a narrative that must be followed.

  • pzatchok

    modern journalists are JUST journalists.
    They learn nothing extra while in school. No specialty or even a personal interest. They have no need and no interest.

    They are like teachers. They learn nothing but teaching. Few ever have another subject as a specialty until years after they start teaching. Their idea is that they only need to be just a bit more knowledgeable than their present students.
    O knew a teacher that actually started teaching in her first year of collage on the promise to get a teaching degree. After 40 years of teaching (and being paid to go to summer collage classes) she did have a masters in education with a minor in special education. She could never teach above the high school level. Except maybe teaching general education.

  • jburn

    An insightful video from Scott Manley. It seems likely the rockets were damaged during launch and the launch structure will require significant repair/redesign work prior to another launch attempt. A good sign if true, as no massive redesign of the rocket would be necessary.

    Scott Manley
    SpaceX’s Massive Rocket Explodes Due to Rapid Unscheduled Digging

  • Edward

    Robert Zimmerman noted: “The interviewer then did the proper thing, listened and learned, and then made good follow-up questions. I commend this reporter for this.

    I have limited experience with reporters, but I have been impressed by some that I have talked with. One reporter did an interview with the chief scientist (principal investigator) on an instrument I worked on, and the scientist talked on camera to the reporter for eight-ish minutes, explaining what the instrument was, how it worked, and why it was important. The reporter then asked for a briefer explanation, and the scientist did it in about two minutes. Finally, the reporter asked for an even briefer summary, and the scientist did it in about half a minute, which was the part that aired on television. However, during that last summary, the scientist forgot one important point, which the reporter immediately prompted him to include. The reporter was smart enough to understood what was important and what was not. Reporters aren’t stupid, but sometimes they are assigned to cover events that they are unfamiliar with. At times like these, they don’t know the correct questions — vitally important for reporters, engineers, and others — and they don’t know when the answers are bogus.

    The reason that the SpaceX crowd cheered at the end was not to put on a brave face but that they understood how well the test went. It looked like a complete disaster, but as Hadfield said, it has given them a lot of important information for their continuing efforts. As he said, “People don’t normally see test operations; they just see, like, airlines and expect everything to be perfect.” As with Edison’s light bulb, it takes a lot of testing before finding the right solution. Then the solution goes on the market, not the testing. Sometimes things are expensive because customers are paying for the research and development.

    The reporters and news organizations were confused about what happened. There is a big difference between development testing and first operational flight. They are very used to seeing the latter. SLS was a first operational flight, and everyone was expecting it to perform its mission in what looked like perfection. It did look like perfection, and we only know about the troubles is had because NASA reported the problems to the press. When Astra’s Rocket-3, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, or Relativity’s Terran-1 failed, those were no longer development tests but were expected to work properly all the way to orbit. The lessons from these flights were supposed to be few, as these rockets were supposed to be operational test flights — first flights — more like the airlines, not development test flights, which are more like the X- series of aircraft tested at Edwards Air Force Base. The lessons from the Starship/Super Heavy flight were supposed to be many. Perhaps not quite this many, but many. Although it was being called a first flight, it was not the usual type of first flight, the type that almost everyone is used to seeing. It was more like the previous Starship landing tests or the Falcon 9 landing tests.

    Why call the launch pad and facilities “stage zero?” Because they are testing it, too. It, too, is under development. Maybe I should say “redevelopment,” because it looks like there is a lot of reconstruction work to be done on it, sort of like a city tearing down a city block and rebuilding it. They tried something new and found out that it doesn’t quite work as intended. Knowing what I know now, I am surprised that the rocket didn’t blow up on the pad. It is good that it cleared the tower, because this gives them a clear view of what happened to the pad due to the exhaust rather than being unsure of what was launch damage and what was explosion damage. No wonder they were most eager for the thing to clear the tower; the real test was what would happen to the pad, but we all thought the test was the rocket. What lessons they have learned!

    An upside to the small size of the Boca Chica Starbase launch facility is that we can see fairly closely what is going on. We get to figure out or to speculate as to what is happening and why parts and pieces are added to the assemblies that we can see. One of the reasons that people are so eager to watch SpaceX’s progress is that we can. We can see it up close and way too personal. For most other development programs, they occur behind closed doors in buildings far from the public streets, so we cannot see much development work or testing. Boca Chica is different. We finally get to see development testing in action, and we are seeing that it is like making laws or making sausage. No wonder they don’t usually show us the development process for various products. Who would buy anything after seeing all that failure?

    A downside to that small size is that too much is too close together and can be damaged by the problems that come with the learning experience.* For the public to be able to get this close, we tend to be able to see most of what happens, including these development test flights. The only reason that we got to see the New Shepard development test flights is because Blue Origin broadcast them, but only the parts that they were willing to show us. I still haven’t found a source of video for the crash of the first landing of the first New Shepard booster, which was something that Blue Origin was not eager to put out to the public.

    Another of the reasons that people are so eager to watch SpaceX’s progress is that the company is doing so many revolutionary things, changing so much in the launch industry and doing such a rapid job of deploying and operating Starlink. OneWeb is only just now able to become truly operational, and Kuiper still has yet to launch any of its constellation’s satellites. SpaceX is a mover and a shaker, and we get to watch them move the state of the art and shake up the industry.
    * When something happens that we wish hadn’t happened, I often call it a learning experience. These are the things that build character. I often say that I am glad that they happened, but I’m not.

    Jeff Wright wrote: “Before structural failure:

    Jeff’s linked video and picture may not be showing us what he thinks they show. Scott Manley’s explanation of the “bent” rocket is probably correct, that the rocket stack was not bent but there were false vibrations displayed due to the way the video was being taken and recorded. Manley called it “rolling shutter,” which I had to look up, because I don’t make enough videos to come across this problem.

    Jeff’s link to the 8k video does not show a bent stack, probably because it was taken by a CCD camera.

    As with the reporters and the news organizations, Jeff Wright is one of those who do not understand the difference between operational flights and development testing. SLS’s flight was intended to certify operational status. Starship’s flight was to discover what needs improvement for the next iteration.

    There was no structural failure. Super Heavy and Starship were intentionally terminated explosively because they were no longer under control. These things are expected during development testing. They are not expected during operations.

    Terminating this test should not be much of a disappointment, as there are many additional development test flights expected through this year and maybe into next year, but had SLS’s flight needed termination, that would have been tragic, as the next SLS flight is expected to carry mankind back to the Moon, similar to Apollo 8’s flight. Had the first flight failed, would the next SLS been seen as safe to fly manned or would an additional unmanned certification flight been necessary?

  • Jeff Wright

    SLS didn’t fail…and I wouldn’t be crowing that it managed to make it 39km up…instead, it made it 1,800 km up and that with a useful payload to boot.

    Now I understand that LN-49 is close to the

    Folks thought to put wings even on limber Atlas

    If what you say is correct and that SuperHeavy is very strong…then maybe Bezos or Gates could come to the rescue and do a winged SuperHeavy…same engine cluster. The payload would be less but maybe do horizontal tests…have any Raptor bugs worked out before you stand it up?

    Air Force might love a winged SuperHeavy.

    And they have a REAL budget.

  • Rob Crawford

    What would the point of a “winged super heavy” be? What fields could support its operation?

    And SLS is a dead end because of its excessive cost and slow production. It’s a throwback to the Saturn V hand-crafted days, while SpaceX is close to producing a Raptor a day and has multiple Ships and Boosters already built for more testing.

  • Michael

    Robert, Thank you for reporting the real news.

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright,
    You wrote: “SLS didn’t fail…and I wouldn’t be crowing that it managed to make it 39km up…instead, it made it 1,800 km up and that with a useful payload to boot.

    As I said, you do not understand the difference between operations and development.

    And they have a REAL budget.

    Which would explain so many over budget projects that take so long to complete. SpaceX does not have those luxuries, so they do better at inexpensive and more timely projects. Isn’t it funny how SpaceX and their small budget changes the industry so much more than the big-budget Air Force?

  • Edward and others: Jeff Wright is a very typical government worker at Marshall. He routinely proposes incredibly difficult engineering projects with a wave of the hand (“maybe Bezos or Gates could come to the rescue and do a winged SuperHeavy…same engine cluster.”), while often regaling us with numerous fantasies about what he “wants.”

    In other words, he hasn’t the slightest concept of the value of a dollar, or what it really takes to solve an actual engineering problem.

    As I say, a very typical government worker. His comments are useful for giving us a window into this thinking, and illustrate why it is essential for the American citizenry to trim or even shut down these agencies as soon as possible. Giving such people access to taxpayer dollars only results in waste and poorly planned projects.

  • Edward

    Scott Manley talked to a few people and thinks he knows why it took so long for the flight termination system (FTS) to work. Is recorrect? I don’t know, but he has done some research. (1 minute)

    My understanding is that the flight termination system is located at the common dome between the two propellant tanks on both the Starship and the Super Heavy booster. The intention is that this location produces a hole that allows the two propellants to mix and burn and to destroy the rocket. Manley’s analysis suggests that the ignition of the propellants did not occur in a timely manner.

    I have seen at least one other failure that also occurred just after the booster phase ended. It also took a while before the FTS took effect. The second stage began coning, spinning around an axis that was off its long axis, “drawing” a conical shape in midair. At that time, I had believed that the range safety officer was giving the second stage a chance to settle down, come to the proper orientation, and ignite the engine.

    The problems with the Super Heavy booster almost certainly would have kept Starship from reaching orbit, which would mean that had it ignited its engines then it would have come down somewhere before Hawaii. Would this have required an early FTS activation anyway, just to make sure that it came down inside the pre-cleared debris field keep-out zone?

  • pzatchok

    I love how SLS works perfectly.

    For just a few billion you too could have a huge rocket that is totally throw away.
    There is nothing better than throwing away 5 billion every year to launch something no one really needs.

    It will never be used to build a space station in Earth orbit and the only job planned for it is the insertion of a pre-built lunar orbital space gas station and parking lot. Hopefully used for dropping astronauts back on the moon.
    Sort of like they did back in the Apollo days except without the orbital garage.
    And remember that anything in lunar orbit will need extra flights just to keep it supplied like the ISS.

  • pzatchok

    Can’t they just put wings on the SLS and fly it back?

    The military would help in financing that final product. They have way more cash than the US government does.

  • Edward

    It looks like the FAA has stopped testing of Starship. for now.

    Shortly after Thursday’s test flight concluded in a ball of flames, reports emerged that the FAA has grounded Starship as it conducts an investigation into the reason behind the explosion—and as others examine the potential health and safety hazards it created.

    The FAA confirmed this in an April 20 statement: “An anomaly occurred during the ascent and prior to stage separation resulting in a loss of the vehicle. No injuries or public property damage have been reported. The FAA will oversee the mishap investigation of the Starship / Super Heavy test mission.”

    If they are concerned about the concrete flying everywhere, then this makes sense, but if the FAA is surprised that the flight termination system (FTS) had to be used, then they don’t understand the nature of development testing. It is why there was a keep-out zone for boats and planes. If the FAA did not think that using the FTS was likely, then they don’t know what they are doing.

  • Edward

    I found this video about the FAA stand-down for Starship test flights. (9 minutes)

    I don’t know his sources, but he reports that the FAA was upset about the results of the pad damage, specifically that sand and more dust drifted miles farther from the pad than SpaceX had predicted in their application for the launch license. One concern being possible harm to humans, property, and wildlife that was unexpected and unplanned for. This was an unexpected bad, and this makes sense to me that the FAA wants to reduce the chances for future similar pad-related problems to health, safety, property, and the environment.

    Since this is now the most powerful rocket to have ever flown, the problem is that if people want a pad that is guaranteed to have no problems on launch, then there may be some difficulty in making such a guarantee before the next launch — or ever — as it is only through the act of launching this rocket that we can determine what works and what does not.

    Starship is doing revolutionary things, and SpaceX is trying a new technique for launch pads for heavy-launch rockets. The problems I had expected did not seem to occur, the acoustical noise from the exhaust may not be the cause of the lost engines. For me, this was an unexpected good.

  • Raymond Brooks

    Let’s take a different look at the SpaceX 33 engine Spaceship. I do not think it is a good approach. This also goes for the USSR N1 rocket which had 30 engines 50 years ago in the first stage. So far, 5 attempts, 5 failures for high quantity first stage rockets.
    From a very simplistic math view, the greater the population size, the more certain that one individual (or more) will achieve a particular state. These states can span from ideal health, low performance, exceptional performance, too hot, too cold, etc. With 33 engines the simple odds are 97% that one engine will fail to ignite, or explode, vibrate excessively, develop low thrust etc. (32/33)

    The Saturn V had an 80% chance of single engine failure since it had 5 F1 engines (4/5).
    There were all kinds of issues & fixes with the F1 engines…temperature extremes, incomplete combustion, helium bubble transient absorbers, cavitation explosion forces, explosive pellet igniters in the fuel lines, injection plate combustion oscillations, etc
    See “Insane Engineering of F1 Engines”

    With a population size of a million or more you are basically guaranteed one unit of the million will fully fail.

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