Much to my surprise, the Starship prototype “SN3” collapsed on the launch pad a couple of days ago during pressure testing. This follows a string of similar failures on going back to December. Despite it name, the SN3 prototype was actually the forth Starship prototype to undergo pad testing. (The first was named Mark 1, which ironically was also the most “complete” of the prototypes, as it also featured a fairing, header tanks, and fins.)
It would seem that SpaceX also didn’t anticipate the fate of SN3, this deduced from the presence of “V 0.9” landing legs placed just below the pressure vehicle. If SpaceX had thought that there was much of a chance of failure, it is likely that they would not have incurred the time and expense of placing those legs on prior to pressure testing.
After so many failures, one has to wonder if Elon Musk has begun to lost his touch. After all, these are not even flight failures, not a single engine has been lit on one of these prototypes. If SpaceX cannot even get the pressure vessel right in the most ideal of conditions, how can they possible expect to get the entire rocket flying, let alone get it to survive the heat and stresses of atmospheric reentry and land softly for rapid reuse?
I think these questions are valid. Space is hard and failure, to some extent, is to be expected. But the development of the Starship is starting to look a bit sloppy. The closest equivalent I can think of is the late 90s NASA approach to space probe development, which was known as “faster, better, cheaper.” It turned out, NASA could crank out space probes faster and cheaper…but not better. After a number of fairly expensive failures and setbacks, NASA walked back this approach, going back to the slow and expensive (but ultimately more successful) approach to building space probes.
Now, I am hedging my words here a bit, and for good reason. While I expect that Musk himself is disappointed at the progress of Starship testing, it is important to remember that he often approaches problems from a different plane than you are I would.
In recent months, Musk has talked a lot about the “Machine that builds the Machine.” He has notes that the single greatest challenge that SpaceX faces right now is not the design of the Starship rocket itself, but rather that production system that seeks to mass produce rockets that can be iterated upon very quickly. He compares it to building a car. Designing a car and building one is fairly easy. Mass producing a car, however, is an order of magnitude harder.
The failures that we are seeing may be seen by Elon as just another trial of the ‘machine that builds the machine’ and not so much a failure of the Starship vehicle itself. The end result might be the same, but the root causes are different.
We can only hope that Musk is playing the long game here. Once the ‘machine that builds the machine’ is up and running at full capacity, testing and improvement of the Starship will reach a rate that is unheard of in the aerospace industry. Ultimately, the failures that we see right now might not matter so much. But if Musk is wrong, it might be back to slower, better, and more expensive rocket development.