SpaceX Starship Rocket Ruptures: Reason to Worry?

SpaceX doesn’t appear to have a handle on their new rocket.

As a huge SpaceX fan, I was sad to hear that the Starship Mark1 prototype ruptured during pressure testing on the launchpad a few days ago. The loss of Mark 1, should not have been unexpected. In fact, the very reason that SpaceX is building the vehicle/prototype (two, actually) is that there was always a good chance that crashes or explosions might await them. While the loss of the craft itself was not itself unexpected, the timing is concerning. I had anticipated a crash landing after several flights…not a rupture on the launchpad long before an engine had even been lit.

In retrospect, we might have missed the warning signs…the wheels have been coming off on the project for some weeks. I recall in early August, CEO of SpaceX, Elon Musk, remarked that Mark 1 would be “almost finished” by the end of the month. Sure, delays in this industry are common, and Elon is known for overly optimistic timelines. Yet, work on Mark 1 continued throughout August without any hint of completion.

In fact, work in September was accelerated with SpaceX having crews working 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, even apparently flying its crew from Florida, tasked with building the second prototype (Mark 2) to speed up work on the vehicle. Yet, even with this accelerated work, it still wasn’t finished. Crews continued their frantic work through October, and for the first half of November. Even then, at the time of the rupture, Mark 1 was at least a month away from a first flight.

Mark 1 from “almost done” in early August to a prototype that appeared far from completion in mid-November. Perhaps issues with the design and build quality of the prototype were to blame for the delays. Indeed, it seems likely that by early November, engineers were already unsure if Mark 1 could fly at all. Rumor has it that early pressure testing was not going well, confirming these concerns. Consequently, Elon decided not to fly Mark 1 and use it for ground testing only. We have now all witnessed the results of this testing.

More worryingly, rumor is that Mark 2, the “sister” ship will also no longer fly, doomed to be a permanent ground test vehicle. Worse yet, the stainless steel rings that were believed to be the first pieces of an improved Mark 3/4 design, are apparently being scrapped.

All of this is to say that there appears to be a fundamental issue with either the design or the construction methodology used for Starship thus far. If this is indeed the case, one has to wonder, under the brilliant leadership of Elon Musk, why wasn’t this issue identified and rectified sooner?

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. Part of the reason Elon was so excited to switch the Starship design to stainless steel is because its low cost and relative ease of construction makes mistakes such as these less catastrophic. If a carbon fiber Starship had ruptured on the launchpad, the delays would have been more significant and vastly more expensive.

Let’s not sugar coat this. The loss of Mark 1 so early is a setback, and certainly to be great fodder for unfriendly political rivals, but it is not a catastrophic loss. I estimate that SpaceX has been set back about 3–6 months in the Starship development timeline, but that still makes an orbital flight next year possible…if we are lucky.