The Space Exploration Company (SpaceX) abruptly canceled their orbital flight test of their Starship heavy-lifting rocket.
SpaceX exercises caution
SpaceX was loading liquid methane and liquid oxygen into fuel and oxidizer tanks on the two stages of its next-generation rocket ship, Starship. But at T minuts 17:15, controllers announced a “pressurization issue” with the booster tanks. Finally at T minus nine minutes, SpaceX announced that their prototype would not launch after all. They continued to load propellant until T minus 40 seconds, then “held” the countdown. In short they continued as they would for a “wet dress rehearsal,” in which they load propellant and chill the engines but do not launch.
In addition to the pressurization problem, controllers reported a boat in the “exclusion zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. SpaceX and “Angry Astronaut” Jordan Wright both reported this boat. SpaceX further reported that the Coast Guard had “cleared” several boats out of this zone overnight.
The company issued no immediate press release, preferring to say on their livestream that they would try to launch again in 48 hours.
Better safe than sorry
Jordan “The Angry Astronaut” Wright expressed clear relief at the decision to “treat this [exercise] as a wet dress rehearsal.” He pointed out on his livestream that the company had never held a wet dress rehearsal for the full stack. To proceed to launch without such a rehearsal, he would regard as irresponsible. Wright has repeatedly compared Starship to the Soviet N1 rocket, which blew up after clearing its launch tower. Some historical reports say that four soldiers of the Soviet Army died that day after shrapnel hit them.
No one had any comment on the stray boat in the exclusion zone. The company and Wright both seem to agree that the pressurization problem with the booster was reason enough to scrub. But whoever piloted that boat could have one of two motives:
- Trying to get his own private launch footage by getting too close for everyone’s comfort, or
- Deliberately forcing a scrub for ideological reasons.
No one knows for sure – and no one, including SpaceX, has made any statements at posting time. The obvious ideological opponent is the Sierra Club, but they have made no statements either.
Wright has pointed out that Boca Chica lacks the much stronger Coast Guard and Naval presence of Cape Canaveral.
The FAA granted SpaceX a launch license late Friday afternoon. That license provides for five test flights out of their Boca Chica proving ground each year. The company is also building a complete Starship launch tower and mount at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
One can view the commentaries by Wright and the company on these two YouTube recordings:
SpaceX is one of a handful of companies attempting to run a private space program. It also has enjoyed the greatest success thus far at actually placing payloads into orbit. The company has the long-term goal of founding a self-sufficient human colony on the planet Mars.
Blue Origin, their nearest competitor, has its own rockets under development. So far they have accomplished little beyond some spectacular space tourism missions. Their ultimate goal is to build “megastructures” either in geostationary Earth Orbit or at the trailing “libration point” in the Earth-Moon system.
Update: next Starship flight test attempt
SpaceX quietly announced their rescheduling of the Starship flight test attempt. They will attempt a test launch no earlier than Thursday 20 April at 9:30 a.m. CDT.
SpaceX also has since revealed further details on the cause of the pressurization problem. A key valve froze, and the ground crew could not coax the valve to operate.
The countdown proceeded to T minus forty seconds, then stopped. At T minus forty seconds, Starship undergoes a vent-down sequence. For reasons SpaceX did not reveal (perhaps having to do with the frozen valve), SpaceX elected not to carry out that sequence. Otherwise they would have proceeded to T minus ten seconds, two seconds shy of the start of the ignition sequence.
Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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