Today, 20 April 2023, at 08:33 CDT, SpaceX launched the first Starship/Superheavy. This is truly the beginning of a new Era in spaceflight if the objectives of rapid reusability are reached with this vehicle. The cost of moving a pound mass/kilogram into orbit will hopefully be reduced to the point that at the least our Solar System will become accessible to many and that we humans can become a multi-planetary species.
On first viewing, the liftoff was spectacular. The flight was awe-inspiring. That is, until it went out of control and the Flight Termination System kicked in. And even that was a sight to be seen. The SpaceX presenters on the SpaceX feed even thought that it was starting the flip/separation maneuver. I had noted that some of the Raptor 2 engines were not firing, but thought that was par for the course.
In going back over the videos and pictures from various sources, things were not all that good from the start. As Starship cleared the dust cloud, it was at a strange angle, canted slightly off the vertical even before clearing the launch tower. In other launches I have seen, the rocket remains vertical for a bit further. (The image below from Tim Dodd via NASASpaceFlight Forums.)
There were clear indications of engine failures as it climbed, with one as early as about 7 seconds into launch. Ultimately it appeared that 8 engines had failed, 6 in the outer ring of 20 and 2 in the innermost 13 gimbaled engines. (Image below from NASASpaceFlight Forums.)
This must have eventually lead to the loss of control of the booster as shown in the tweet below.
And to top things off a lot was learned about the durability of Stage Zero, the reference SpaceX makes to the ground launch systems. There was quite a crater dug out under the Operational Launch Mount (OLM). The LOX (Liquid Oxygen), LN2 (Liquid Nitrogen) and water storage tanks just north of the OLM were damaged; there are huge dings in two and an apparent hole in one of the cryogenic storage tanks.
At least SpaceX won’t have to do too much excavation to install the water deluge system and maybe a flame diverter under the OLM. The speculation is that the material from that crater did most of the physical damage. As an aside, some projectile destroyed NASASpaceFlights van that was parked about 1100 feet from the OLM on the other side of those tanks.
The data from this launch is the success. In the coming weeks we should see and hear what happened and what will be done to upgrade Stage Zero, Stage One (Superheavy Booster) and Stage 2 (Starship). Some of the information will be from SpaceX news releases or back channels. Some will be from the work being done on Stage Zero. I am looking forward to the next launch within a few months, as Elon Musk tweeted out:
I will recommend the NASASpaceFlight Forums on SpaceX as a good source of information. One only needs to put a few mental filters on for some of the comments in the various threads.