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Why SpaceX staff cheered when the Starship rocket exploded

Spectators watch from South Padre Island, Texas, as the SpaceX Starship launches on Thursday. It exploded several minutes later.
Veronica G. Cardenas
/
AFP via Getty Images
Spectators watch from South Padre Island, Texas, as the SpaceX Starship launches on Thursday. It exploded several minutes later.

Updated April 21, 2023 at 11:34 AM ET

SpaceX's Starship rocket — which could one day carry humans to the moon and Mars — made it some four minutes and 24 miles into the sky before it exploded during its inaugural test flight on Thursday.

And yet, even as they watched the world's largest rocket burst into a fireball, SpaceX employees still roared with cheers and applause.

That's because the whole point of a test is to figure out what does and doesn't work, experts say.

Thursday's launch was hailed as "a real accomplishment" and "so successful" by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and retired International Space Station Commander Chris Hadfield, respectively. SpaceX agreed.

"With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today's test will help us improve Starship's reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary," SpaceX later tweeted.

That encapsulates the company's philosophy of designing based on failure, WMFE's Brendan Byrne told Morning Edition on Thursday. He added that SpaceX said before the mission that any data it yielded would be valuable as long as the rocket cleared the launch pad — which it did.

Carissa Bryce Christensen, the CEO and founder of analytics and engineering firm BryceTech, says SpaceX's visibility and transparency in its test process is a good thing.

"This test is consistent with the planned test program," the space industry analyst said. "Now, it's always great in a test if everything works flawlessly. That's an unrealistic expectation with a vehicle this complex."

The stakes are high, in part because NASA is paying SpaceX to develop a version of the rocket that would send astronauts to the moon as soon as 2025.

Christensen spoke with Morning Edition's A Martínez about how the test flight went and how it fits into that broader mission.

This interview has been lighlty edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights:

On what went well

This was not the flight of a mature operational vehicle. The starship launch we saw yesterday was a planned step in an ongoing multi-year development and test program for ... arguably the most powerful launch vehicle ever.

That launch met its objectives. It provided data needed to advance the development of the vehicle.

On what the test says about SpaceX's approach

It's interesting, the loss of that test article is quite consistent with SpaceX's approach to developing the Starship system. In designing and developing and testing complex hardware, you can use analysis and computer simulations to figure out what will work and what won't, and you can use physical tests in the real world. And SpaceX has been very hardware-intensive in its development program, conducting many physical tests, as we very dramatically have seen.

On what else SpaceX is doing

SpaceX talks about this rocket in the context of aspiring to change what humanity does in space. SpaceX has already dominated launches of existing space activities with its Falcon 9 reusable launch vehicle. And reusability there was a big achievement — so you're not throwing the rocket away each launch, you're reusing it. And so SpaceX's Falcon 9 vehicle contributed to lower prices, a faster launch cadence and has helped attract investment in space ventures that use satellites and serve other existing space markets.

On what happens next

I would anticipate that we would see a next step of vehicle performance and functionality. But I certainly would not say that we won't see a test article dramatically and excitingly "disassemble."

HJ Mai produced the audio version of this interview and Majd al-Waheidi edited the digital. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.