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The Foreword

Starship Integrated Flight Test 2; A Great Leap Forward for Spaceflight

Chris Bergin from NASA Spaceflight

On November 18th, 2023, at 7 AM CDT, the private aerospace company SpaceX conducted the second Integrated Flight Test (IFT-2) of its new Starship launch vehicle. This test flight, despite its ultimate “failure”, still is a remarkable step towards SpaceX’s goal of making life multi-planetary. 

Just after 7 AM that morning, the 33 Raptor 2 engines on the Superheavy booster B9 lit up, propelling the vehicle into the air. This marks the first milestone of this test flight. The first test flight, IFT-1, had 3 of its 33 Raptor 2’s fail to ignite on launch. Due to all of its engines functioning nominally, IFT-2 broke the record, previously held by IFT-2, for the most powerful rocket ever launched. Then, we get to the next milestone. Several minutes into the flight, the upper stage is intended to separate from the booster and continue on its journey. During IFT-1, this part failed. The vehicle lost thrust-vector control and began to tumble until roughly forty seconds after the Flight Termination System (FTS) detonated. That is a problem of its own, as the FTS is supposed to destroy the vehicle immediately. IFT-2 however, was far more successful. The vehicle was equipped with a new staging technique, known as “hot-staging” in which the upper stage engines are ignited before the booster’s engines are cut off, eliminating the period of coasting that would otherwise take place. This new technique worked phenomenally, as the upper stage, S25, successfully separated from the booster, B9, and ignited its 6 Raptor 2 engines. Now, we get to the first failure of this mission. The intent for B9 after stage separation was that it would flip 180° and do a “boostback” burn, and then softly splash down in the Gulf of Mexico. However, most likely due to the stresses imposed on it by hot-staging, B9 lost control during this flip maneuver and was promptly destroyed by the detonation of the improved FTS. S25 continued as intended for several more minutes. Shortly before its engines were supposed to be cut off after placing it on its final trajectory, all contact with the vehicle was lost, and it was later found out that an anomaly with the engines led to the FTS being triggered to destroy the vehicle.

From SpaceX’s livestream on X

The total loss of the vehicle may lead some to see this mission as a complete failure, which could not be further from the truth. At the end of the day, this was a test flight. Starship is still an experimental vehicle, and “failures” on test flights are to be expected, especially given SpaceX’s rapid iteration development philosophy. The main purpose of these early test flights is to collect data and test out new designs and systems on the rocket, and looking at it through that lens, this test flight was wildly successful.

The Starship program has the potential to be an absolute game-changer as it matures and develops. Starship will be the most capable rocket ever built, capable of lifting upwards of 150 metric tons into low earth orbit, and even more revolutionary, it will be able to do this while being fully reusable, thus drastically dropping the price of launching payloads into space. This incredible combination of capability and (relative) affordability, even led to NASA choosing a modified version of Starship to be the vehicle that brings humans back to the Moon, as part of its Artemis program. All in all, despite the partial failure of today’s test flight, SpaceX and Starship are still poised to be integral parts of humanity’s glorious future among the stars.

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