After dramatic launch, what’s subsequent for SpaceX’s spacecraft?

Starship launches from Texas on April 20, 2023 for the first time with its Super Heavy Booster.


The dust has settled in Texas, but work is already underway to clean up the world’s most powerful rocket and get the next one flying within months.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its fully loaded spacecraft for the first time just over a week ago. While the nearly 400-foot-tall vehicle flew for more than three minutes and achieved several milestones for a rocket of unprecedented scale, Starship also lost several engines during launch, causing severe damage to ground infrastructure and eventually failing to reach space after the rocket began to tumble and was intentionally destroyed in mid-air.

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

The company hopes to launch another Starship rocket as early as June or July, but that timeline depends on a variety of factors, including repair work, regulatory approval, and the readiness of its next prototype.

Damage to the launch site

Debris litters the ground April 22, 2023 after the SpaceX spacecraft lifted off April 20 for a flight test from the starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

Patrick T Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

The biggest hurdle to trying a second start can be the daunting cleanup.

Shortly after launch, SpaceX began cleaning up the launch pad and assessing the damage to its infrastructure. Photos taken by onlookers have shown the violent result of the Super Heavy Booster’s engines, which carved a crater in the ground and hurled debris into the launch tower, nearby tanks and other ground equipment.

“I asked so I can report to you that to this day SpaceX still says they believe it will take at least two months to rebuild the launch pad and at the same time about two months to have their second vehicle ready for launch NASA Chief Nelson told lawmakers Thursday, providing the latest update on the company’s return-to-flight schedule.

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 as part of the Artemis program to land astronauts on the moon.

A member of the public walks through a debris field on the launch pad April 22, 2023 after the SpaceX spacecraft lifted off from the starbase in Boca Chica, Texas on April 20 for a flight test.

Patrick T Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

SpaceX leadership repeatedly said before the launch that not blowing up the launch pad would be counted as a success for the first launch. But the infrastructure has still taken a hit. In a series of post-launch tweets, Musk described extensive damage to the concrete launch pad the company had built and said he hoped the rocket didn’t damage the mount it carries too badly before launch.

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

Debris litters the launch pad and damaged tanks (R rear) April 22, 2023 after the SpaceX spacecraft lifted off April 20 for a flight test from the starbase in Boca Chica, Texas.

Patrick T Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

The company’s CEO added that it was “early days” in SpaceX’s analysis, but suspected that “the power of the thrusters as they were throttled may have shattered the concrete rather than simply eroding it.” When SpaceX briefly tested the booster’s 33 Raptor engines before launch, Musk said “the engines only had half thrust,” which avoided digging a hole in the ground beforehand.

A possible solution: According to Musk, SpaceX builds “a massive water-cooled steel plate that fits under the launch bracket”. He said the slab was not “ready in time” for the first attempt and acknowledged the company “misperceived” the concrete would withstand the launch.

Regulatory Review

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


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

The Starship test flight sparked reviews from the FAA, which is effectively the lead federal regulator of the SpaceX missile program. As is usual with a launch “anomaly” like this mid-air explosion, the FAA began an investigation into the flight and its aftermath. The move grounds future Starship launches until it completes the investigation and gives SpaceX permission to move forward under the license the regulator granted the company earlier this month.

“A return to flight of the Starship/Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA’s determination that any system, process or procedure related to the mishap does not adversely affect public safety,” the agency said in a statement on the spacecraft’s May 20 launch and subsequent explosion.

Members of the public walk through a debris field on the launch pad April 22, 2023 after the SpaceX spacecraft lifted off from the starbase in Boca Chica, Texas on April 20 for a flight test.

Patrick T Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Additionally, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced this week that the Starship launch sparked a 3.5-acre fire on land in Texas’ Boca Chica State Park. FWS found no dead wildlife at the local sanctuaries, which are a habitat for endangered species, but noted that the missile’s destructive force hurled concrete and metal “thousands of feet away” and created a cloud of dust and pulverized concrete that so far fell 6.5 miles from launch site.

“hardware empire”

A SpaceX prototype spacecraft stands in a bay at the SpaceX Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas on April 18, 2023.

Patrick T Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

Part 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 flight as early as summer 2021, but President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell recently said the inaugural flight has been delayed in part because the company is focusing on developing “the production systems , who will build the ship.” The company has steadily expanded its “Starbase” facility in recent years.

Thanks to the many enthusiasts streaming every minute of SpaceX’s work live from South Texas, it’s apparent that the company has up to 10 other Starship prototypes in various stages of assembly, as well as up to seven other super-heavy boosters .

Speaking to members of Congress, Nelson explained how the company approaches rocket development differently than the space agency.

“Understand now that the explosion isn’t a huge downer in the way SpaceX is doing things. They’re hardware rich, which means they have a lot of these rockets ready to launch, and that’s their approach — they launch when something goes wrong, they figure out what it is, they go back and launch it again,” Nelson said .

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

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