‘Starship’ Didn’t Just Explode: Destruction at Launch Area Puts NASA on Alert | Sciences

As Elon Musk said before it was launched StarshipWhatever comes after the missile passes the tower will be the icing on the cake. The rest of the goals were secondary. The real fear with this first attempt was that the massive car would crash on the launch ramp. It has already happened once. In July 1969, in the midst of the space race, the Soviet Union launched its second N-1 rocket, the rocket that was developed to carry a Russian cosmonaut to the moon. Just ten seconds after liftoff, nearly all of the thirty first-stage engines were shut down and the vehicle sank to the launch pad. The explosion destroyed it completely. It took a year and a half to rebuild it.

Fortunately, the Starship I took off out of respect for the tower. Hence the enthusiasm and applause from SpaceX employees after the launch. But subsequent analysis showed that the infrastructure had suffered significant damage. Beneath the “stool” used as a seat for the rocket, exhaust from the engines dug a hole that exposed the foundations.

Destruction on the platform

The impact of the Raptor’s 33 engine flames nearly 3,000 degrees above the ground below the platform had a devastating effect. The concrete used cracked and large pieces flew in all directions, causing a massive bombardment hundreds of meters away. Some got into the methane and oxygen tanks which were mounted a short distance from the tower, jamming them, though – it would seem – without going so far as to puncture them. Others, smaller in size, damaged a vehicle parked nearby. Images obtained by a remote camera show reality A shower of shrapnel.

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Sand and crushed concrete formed clouds that deposited a thin layer on streets and vehicles in the nearby town of Port Isabel and others five miles away. The remains of the car – steel instead of the aluminum used in other giant rockets such as Saturn V– fell into the sea.

Given the scale of the damage, many are wondering why a flame reflector was not installed under the launch pad, to redirect them in some direction. At the Kennedy Center, for example, slopes 39A and B, from where Saturn V And later, the Shuttles and SLS have just such a piece: a massive inverted V-shaped hull that fits directly under the rocket exhaust. On takeoff, the flares hit the reflector walls and are diverted down two horizontal side trenches so they do not hit the ground.

A civilian walks through the rubble on the platform and the launch pads of SpaceX 'Starship', days later in Boca Chica.
A civilian walks through the rubble on the platform and the launch pads of SpaceX ‘Starship’, days later in Boca Chica.Patrick T Fallon (AFP)

Most launch pads have a water immersion system. Not only to combat the heat from the exhaust, but also to mitigate the impact of noise. Millions of bubbles of liquid absorb some of the sound energy and shield the missile itself from its impact. The intensity of the rumble is more than the air can handle: it is no longer just a noise, but a monstrous pressure wave bouncing off the ground and threatening to damage the engines that produce it.

Deficiencies in the launch pad

The Boca Chica platform lacked a deflector and only used a spray system aimed at the missile craters, not to flood the area. Apparently, they trusted that the concrete slab (“Fondag,” a material very resistant to high temperatures) could withstand at least one firing. A hypothesis that has been shown to be overly optimistic.

Spectators film a torn concrete block from the SpaceX platform in Boca Chica, Texas.
Spectators film a torn concrete block from the SpaceX platform in Boca Chica, Texas.Patrick T Fallon (AFP)

king Elon Musk tweeted the next day: “Three months ago we started building a water-cooled steel plate that needed to be placed under the launch pad. It wasn’t ready on time…” So I decided to set off even in perilous conditions. It was a mistake that would have unforeseen consequences. Although Musk, in his eternal optimism, maintains that the damage will be fixed in a month or two.

First of all, it is doubtful that the federal administration would allow another launch Starship So the problem is not completely resolved. This means significant modifications to Boca Chica’s structures.

On the other hand, NASA will object to the new launch tower being built at the Kennedy Center, almost next to Platform 39A. It is the historical slope from which flights to the moon took off. SpaceX leased it to the agency and from there regularly launches its rockets Falcon. The danger of infection with these fragments became very clear.

NASA officials had warned SpaceX of an explosion Starship At Launch Complex 39A he can criticize the space agency’s only means of launching American astronauts to the International Space Station. “It would be very devastating for 39A,” NASA chief of space operations Kathy Lueders said in an interview about the agency’s talks with SpaceX.

SpaceX workers repair damage to the Boca Chica base caused by a launch
SpaceX workers repair damage to the Boca Chica base caused by the Starship launch.Steve Nesios (Reuters)

Apart from trying a steel skateboard, is there any other solution? very Difficult. When the facilities were built to launch Saturn V Half a century ago, the determining factor was precisely the size of the flame reflector: 12 meters high. This led to the height of the platform, which is reached by means of a ramp, and also the width of the gas discharge channels. All this, on the surface, because the soil of Cape Canaveral, right next to the shore, did not allow such deep excavations.

Possible delay in the lunar program

The problem is that the Boca Chica launch tower and pedestal were built at ground level, right next to the beach. There is hardly room for confusion and it will be very difficult to dig evacuation trenches. The assembly of the flood protection system for the platform, although feasible, will take time. The same can be said of the facility being built at the Kennedy Center.

Unless Musk surprises us again with a revolutionary idea, it seems that the only solution is through the metal shield at the bottom of the missile. If it really is a solution. There are already sounds that a steel plate of this size exposed to the tremendous heat of the exhaust for ten or fifteen seconds will undergo such sudden expansions that it will crack. SpaceX engineers face a serious problem.

At present, the delay will affect the development Starship It will have an immediate impact on NASA’s plans. A variant of that vehicle has been chosen to carry astronauts to the lunar surface in 2025. If there were already many doubts about the viability of that date, the outcome of this first flight makes it almost impossible.

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