SpaceX shrugs off Starship implosion and gets back to work as Elon Musk talks next steps

Technicians have already begun stacking and integrating different sections of Starship SN02. (NASASpaceflight - bocachicagal)

SpaceX has shrugged off the catastrophic implosion of its first serial Starship prototype (SN01) and begun stacking sections of the next ship (SN02) while CEO Elon Musk talks next steps for the next-generation rocket program.

By now, it’s reasonably clear that the demise of Starship SN01’s tank and engine section came as a bit of surprise to SpaceX itself, while it assuredly shocked non-employees and local residents who happened to be watching on eve of the anomaly. CEO Elon Musk himself appears to have expected different results, noting that – thankfully – the likely source of the Starship’s unforeseen failure had already been determined.

Despite the apparent setback, it appears that SpaceX won’t have to wait long at all to continue its uniquely ‘hardware-rich’ Starship test campaign. With a workforce now several hundred strong and a great deal of hands-on and strategic experience gained from building Starships Mk1 and SN01, SpaceX is now practically churning out parts for future Starship SNxx prototypes. Most notably, Starship SN01’s predecessor is potentially just a few days away from being stacked into a finished tank section, hinting at the almost unfathomably speed that SpaceX is able to build full-scale vehicles even in early days of the program.

Three days after Starship SN01’s spectacular implosion and unintentional ‘launch’, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to share a video captured by local Boca Chica Village resident ‘bocachicagal’ and posted by Attached above, Mary’s video offers an incredibly vivid view of the rocket’s violent demise while further revealing the apparent location where the failure started – Starship SN01’s engine section and thrust structure.

Given that Musk already revealed that Starship SN02 would feature improved tank welds, it’s safe to assume that the prototype will also have an improved thrust structure (i.e. “puck”).

Confirming suspicions, Musk quickly implied that the Starship’s failure originated in or around its thrust structure (‘thrust puck’), further noting that Starship SN02 – already in the middle of production – would be “stripp[ed]…to [the] bare minimum to test the thrust puck to dome weld.” In essence, it sounds like Starship SN02 will become SpaceX’s third intentional “test tank”, following in the footsteps of two small Starship tanks built and pressurized to failure to verify the quality of Starship manufacturing.

Starship SN01’s ‘thrust puck’ or thrust structure and aft liquid oxygen tank dome are pictured on February 12th. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)
Starship SN02’s ‘thrust puck’ – pictured on March 2nd – already looks substantially different. (NASASpaceflight – bocachicagal)

Starship SN02’s thrust structure design already appears to be a departure from SN01’s apparently unsuccessful iteration. Given that it was already partially completed before Starship SN01 failed during testing, it’s possible that SpaceX will attempt to reinforce the SN02 thrust structure, but the company may have already implemented upgrades before its engineers had the benefit of hindsight from February 28th’s test.

Regardless of what happens to Starship SN02, the fact that SpaceX is apparently building full-scale, (mostly) functional Starship tank sections from raw materials to the launch pad in a matter of a few weeks is incredibly encouraging for the next-generation rocket development program. As an external observer, it’s certainly disappointing to see an impressive piece of rocket hardware shredded in an evening after weeks of work, but that speed – and SpaceX’s willingness to accept failures at the scale of SN01 – suggests that each prototype is almost unfathomably cheap. Unofficial estimates peg the cost of SN01-like Starship prototypes at just several million dollars apiece, while the cost of the raw steel itself is so low that it might as well be negligible.

Even if it takes SpaceX 5-10 SN01-class failures to mature its South Texas rocket factory into a reliable machine and get to a point of stability and confidence with suborbital Starship flights, the total cost of that trial and error is comically insignificant relative to almost any other rocket development program in history. To be clear, SpaceX might benefit from going a little slower and refining Starship’s prototype design, but it’s impossible to know from an armchair. For now, the best available advice is to simply enjoy the show and view each potential test failure as just another small step along the path to Mars.

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SpaceX shrugs off Starship implosion and gets back to work as Elon Musk talks next steps
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