Spacecraft launch video captures flying debris and destruction

Videos show a barrage of wartime shrapnel moving away from the launch site onto nearby beaches, wetlands and at least one car

SpaceX’s spacecraft launch scattered debris on the beach and shoreline of Boca Chica, Texas on April 20. (Video: SpaceX)

Big rockets emit huge amounts of energy – and none more so than SpaceX’s Starship, the world’s most powerful rocket, which generates twice as much thrust as the Saturn V rocket that carried astronauts from ‘Apollo to the moon.

So when it lifted off on Thursday, the nearly 400-foot-tall Starship scattered debris hundreds of feet like mortar fire, leaving a crater beneath its launch pad, dents in storage tanks at proximity and questions about the extent of the repairs and when SpaceX might be able to attempt to revive.

The public road that passes in front of the site remained closed all day Friday, which makes it difficult to assess the extent of the damage. Photographers needing to collect their equipment remotely have been told they will not be allowed to do so until Saturday afternoon, at the earliest. The delay suggested that the damage had been greater than expected.

Videos shared on social networks showed a piece of debris slamming into a pickup truck several hundred yards from the launch site as cameras flipped nearby. They also showed shrapnel hitting the nearby beach and pounding the shore, making it look like a war zone. Splashes of debris falling into wet areas can be seen on multiple sides of the launch pad for 10 seconds or more after launch.

The dust cloud thrown up by the rocket spread to communities miles away.

Knowing that the rocket and its 33 powerful first-stage engines would wreak havoc on the area, especially if it exploded on the pad, the Federal Aviation Administration and local authorities imposed a wide safety zone, forcing people to stay at kilometers. Boats were banned from parts of the Gulf of Mexico and skies were cleared of air traffic, as is the norm for rocket launches.

As a result, the FAA said no one was injured and no public property was damaged. The FAA cleared more than 530 launches, “none of which resulted in death, injury or significant damage to public property,” said an FAA official who was not authorized to speak publicly before the launch. . “I think we’ve done a good job overseeing safety and keeping it our top priority.”

Debris struck a nearby car after the SpaceX Starship launched in Boca Chica, Texas on April 20. (Video: LabPadre via Storyful)

Launch sites are set up on the coast for a reason: to make sure rockets don’t endanger populated areas as they head into space. Damage to launch sites and surrounding areas is not uncommon. At the dawn of the space age, NASA routinely blew up rockets as it raced to beat the Soviet Union to the moon during the Cold War space race. Rockets from Cape Canaveral set off car alarms parked four or five miles away and rattled windows in Florida Space Coast communities.

And late last year, when NASA launched its massive Space Launch System, which at the time was the most powerful rocket to fly, it scorched its launch pad and blew the doors off. elevator of its mobile launch tower.

“It just goes to show that the environment…isn’t the friendliest when the world’s most powerful rocket lifts off,” said Mike Sarafin, a senior NASA official at the time.

NASA officials said the repairs to SLS’s ground facilities weren’t so extensive that they would further delay the rocket’s next launch. But that’s not expected before the end of next year.

Ahead of Thursday’s launch, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said success would be measured by a simple metric: “Don’t blow up the launch pad.”

It would “probably take us several months to rebuild the launch pad if we melt it,” he added.

So when the Starship rocket, fueled by 10 million pounds of highly combustible propellant, lifted off and cleared the tower, leaving behind a huge plume and flames but the tower intact, there was a sense of relief, even though the vehicle exploded about four minutes into the air.

SpaceX hoped to launch another spacecraft in “a few months,” Musk said. But that will depend on the extent of the damage and how quickly SpaceX can repair it. The company may also decide to make the launch pad on which the rocket sits stronger and install a more robust water deluge system to dampen acoustic vibrations.

Musk wrote on Twitter Friday that three months ago the company began building “a massive water-cooled steel plate to fit under the launch pad.” But he said he “wasn’t ready in time” and the company had hoped the concrete under the rocket would survive the first launch. Still, Musk added that it “looks like we can be ready to relaunch in 1-2 months.” But even Musk said he was often overly optimistic in his timeline forecasts.

The pad does not have a flame deflector, which is used to direct the fire and rocket exhaust in a controlled manner. In 2020, Musk tweeted that the company “wanted not to have a flame deflector in Boca, but that could turn out to be a mistake”.

SpaceX has not publicly commented on the extent of the damage or when it might try to relaunch.

NASA hopes the company will attempt to launch soon. The space agency relies on Starship to land astronauts on the surface of the moon as part of its Artemis program. This first landing is tentatively scheduled for 2025, although 2026 or later may be more likely. But before attempting a lunar landing, Starship must first get into orbit, prove it can fly reliably and safely, and reach a host of other milestones.

In a previous test campaign, the company blew up several prototype Starship spacecraft, which flew at an altitude of around six miles and then crashed before the company could finally successfully land one. . After each explosion, the company quickly cleaned up the site and started again. He even set up a county-promoted hotline for local residents to report the debris.

Some believe the company will move quickly to revive Starship.

“SpaceX moves fast when they see what needs to be fixed,” said former SpaceX mission director Abhi Tripathi. wrote on Twitter. “I assume they will approach the launch site findings with the same emphasis they place on spacecraft design issues. I have to think about it in terms of the system as a whole.

SpaceX is also building a launch tower for Starship on one of its pads at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, potentially giving it an alternate launch site.

In granting SpaceX preliminary approval last year, the FAA required the company to meet 75 requirements intended to protect the environment. But some environmental groups said they weren’t going far enough and the rockets were endangering native wildlife and the fragile ecosystem.

“From our perspective, it’s good news that it didn’t explode at the platform site, but future launches might,” said American Bird Conservancy President Michael Parr, to the Washington Post after the launch. If an explosion had taken place over sensitive wetlands, a cleanup would further disrupt the environment, he said.

Hamza Shaban contributed to this report.

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