The launch by SpaceX on Tuesday of SN11, a prototype of the craft that is hoped to fly people to Mars, took off into thick fog and never made it back to the landing pad. Is that a good metaphor for the entire program? At this point, one has to wonder.
The craft rose from its launch pad in Boca Chica, in South Texas, in dense fog, which created the illusion of the craft exuding great balls of fire, as the rocket burn was diffused and projected by the foggy air. But that wasn’t what happened. According to SpaceX, the launch was fine until engine #2 started to act up—exactly how is not yet known. Shortly after that, the on-ship camera froze. With no visual on the rising craft because of the low visibility and only the frozen camera feed coming through, the launch was left in a weird sort of limbo, a state the video and the announcer’s reaction make painfully clear.
The launch team knew the flight was kaput, but why exactly or what had happened to it was unknown. “As you can see from the frozen camera view,” the SpaceX play-by-play announcer told the YouTube live audience, “we lost the clock at T-plus 5 minutes 49 seconds. Looks like we’ve had another exciting test of Starship Number 11.” In this case, “exciting” means a “spectacular failure.”
Well, not entirely unknown. Everyone was pretty sure it didn’t, A. make it to space or B. just stay up there in suspended animation. And true enough, the craft, or what was left of it, did indeed come back to earth. SpaceX is looking into what happened.
Yet another disastrous launch raises a few questions, the last of which is the biggie, of course.
First, is SpaceX even up for this stuff? We have all blithely accepted the idea that private space exploration is a good thing, a natural thing? But is that really true? In all fairness, SpaceX, for all its big explosions, has had some stunning successes, too. These include a lot of successful launches of rockets carrying satellites into orbit, the first-ever landing of a rocket under its control back on the pad, and the successful carrying into space of the first astronauts to ride a private rocket into space. Huge props for their achievements in all of those arenas.
But Mars is a whole different animal, and so far, SpaceX has struggled to get the launch and recovery right. And compared to what an actual Mars mission would entail, with all due respect, these initial steps may be the easiest part of the program. The big hurdles include transitioning to the giant rocket, setting up refueling stations in earth orbit, actually doing the eight-month to a year-long trip to the Red Planet and then landing this same thing they’re having so much trouble with on the surface of Mars. Then, of course, launching from Mars again at some point, redoing the journey and then landing back on earth. There are so many opportunities for disaster that it has to give any pragmatic person pause.
Given the stakes and the odds, I also have to admit that SpaceX’s embrace of their mistakes is getting old. From their quippy acronyms for crashes, Rapid Unplanned Disassembly (RUD), for their coming big rocket, dubbed the BFR—use your imagination—and his reaction to the crash this week in a tweet, “At least the crater is in the right place.”
At least the crater is in the right place!
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 30, 2021
At some point it would be nice to hear something to the effect of, “We need to figure out why this happened.” One presumes that’s exactly what is happening, but the public-facing statements from Elon Musk who, remember, put a car into orbit, don’t help build confidence in the project or the process.
The big question, of course, is can they do this? I think the answer is, “Yes.” I base that on the fact that SpaceX is well funded—Musk is the richest man in the world, at least last time I checked—that they have succeeded in so many other areas, and that people like you and me want to believe it can be done. And as NASA learned the hard way, the battle for space goes through the hearts and minds of the American public, so any space organization with dreams of a long future by necessity needs to do public relations as least as well as it does space.
In the case of SpaceX, it looks like the camera is paused on this program, and we are all eagerly awaiting some sign of progress.