Sunday, April 30, 2023

Elon Musk Restates He Expects the Next Starship Test in About 2 Months

In a private chat for subscribers only held on April 29th, Elon Musk predicted that the company would be ready to make another launch attempt in about two months with a greater chance of reaching space. 

“The outcome was roughly sort of what I expected and maybe slightly exceeded my expectations,” he said. Those expectations, he said, were that the vehicle would get clear of the pad and get “significant” data during the flight, including through maximum dynamic pressure or max-Q. “Overall, I actually feel like that was a great flight.”

Musk gives a good, detailed account of the flight and it's captured at that link to  He says that at launch three engines out of 33 either failed to start or were shut down by the controlling systems.  Musk added, “Those engines did not explode, but the system didn’t think they were healthy enough to bring them to full thrust.” 

Still, the 30 engines running at that point are the minimum number required for liftoff.  This was the cause of the Starship stack leaning away from the Tower as it cleared the pad that many people had noted. 

At T+27 seconds, a Raptor designated engine 19 lost communications at the same time that “some kind of energetic event” broke off part of the heat shield around that engine and three others. At that point there were “visible fires” coming from the aft end of the rocket, he said.

At T+62 seconds, there was additional heat shield damage around another Raptor, engine 30, although that engine continued to operate. At T+85 seconds, “things really hit the fan,” he said, with the loss of communication with another engine. “Roughly from this point onwards, we lose thrust vector control of the rocket,” he said, meaning it could no longer steer.

Interestingly, Musk said that they don't conclusively know what caused the engines to fail, but feels that they have no specific evidence that the failures were caused by the “rock tornado” of debris from the concrete pad created by the thrust of the engines at liftoff. 

“Weirdly, we do not see evidence of the rock tornado actually damaging engines or heat shields in a material way,” he said. “It may have, but we have not yet seen evidence of that.”

One would think that sort of evidence would be most easily observed on the wreckage, but there's no specific mention of them having recovered the wreckage for failure analysis (autopsy).  The area where the wreckage fell into the Gulf should be known accurately enough to make search and recovery fairly straightforward.  Or as straightforward as recovering tens of thousands of pounds of steel and wreckage ever gets.

Another oddity was that they had difficulty terminating the flight.  This seems like it could have been related to the hydraulic systems being damaged early in the flight. 

SpaceX made no attempt to separate the Starship upper stage from the Super Heavy vehicle as it tumbled in later stages of flight. Musk said while controllers initiated the flight termination system, it took much longer than expected, about 40 seconds, for explosives to rupture the vehicle’s tanks.

Requalifying that flight termination system will be the long-lead item for the next launch, he predicted, with the next vehicle and a repaired pad likely ready in six to eight weeks. “Hopefully, we’ll be ready to fly again in a couple months.”

Musk played down damage to the pad, including the concrete debris scattered for 400 acres around the pad and the concrete dust that fell over 6 miles away.   “The debris was basically sand and rocks,” he said, “but we don’t want to do that again.”    

Changes to the pad include placing a water-jacketed “steel sandwich” below the launch mount. “You have what’s basically a massive super strong steel showerhead pointing up,” he said, with that water deluge system mitigating dust and debris.
He said SpaceX will also be replacing damaged tanks in the tank farm at the pad that were already set to be swapped out with vacuum-jacketed versions. The launch tower itself suffered no “meaningful” damage, he added.
The next launch will use a Super Heavy booster called Booster 9, but he said the company had not decided which of the Starship upper stages will fly. “The engines on Booster 9, which is next, are much newer and more consistent, and with significant reliability improvements,” he said, along with improved shielding. “I think we’ll see a much more robust engine situation with Booster 9.”

Unlike before this launch, Musk said he thought there was a “better than 50% chance of reaching orbit” on the next launch.  More surprisingly (to me), he said he expected SpaceX to attempt four to five Starship launches this year.

“I would be surprised if we exit this year without getting to orbit,” he said, giving the company an “80%-plus probability” of doing so, increasing to nearly 100% within 12 months.

He said the company will spend about $2 billion this year on Starship, which he argued the company can support without raising outside funding.

“Once again, excitement is guaranteed,” Musk said of the next launch. “Success is not.”

Starship test flight, April 20th. SpaceX photo

Saturday, April 29, 2023

Protecting Falcon Heavy

This happened Thursday, although the source, a SpaceX Tweet, doesn't say exactly when.  It simply says:

Last night’s storm in Florida produced hail, tornadoes, and lightning. Following this strike on the tower at 39A, teams performed additional checkouts of Falcon Heavy, the payloads, and ground support equipment.

The Tweet with picture is time tagged 9:53AM on Friday, April 28.  

SpaceX photo; I reduced it in size somewhat to fit in this template.

Obligatory side story.  In the later part of the 1980s, I helped the local ham club teaching classes to help guys get their first ham license as well as upgrade classes.  In one Novice (entry level license) class, I had a student who had worked on that system.  He said it was man-rated, meaning no person working on the launch tower under the protection could touch two points that would allow a high enough voltage to injure them.  

The essence of how that's accomplished is that they specify resistance across a given distance on the tower.  I don't recall the distance, but think of a person's wing span;  fingertip to fingertip distance with arms outstretched.  It's close to their height, so they'd probably add some margin and specify that any two points can't have more than some number of milliohms of resistance.  Ohm's law says that the voltage difference across the points is the current from the lightning flowing through the points multiplied by the resistance between the points, so by using some measured data for lightning strike currents, they can set the resistance to produce less than the desired voltage at that current.

I asked the guy if he'd be willing to teach the session on lightning that's included in the Novice class and he gladly accepted.  It's the only time I ever had a student teach a session for me. 

As for the Falcon Heavy mission, it's currently scheduled for Sunday night, 4/30 at 7:29 PM ET.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Between Games of a Double Header

The baseball analogy is the best I can think of for the situation right now.  We were set to get a rare combination this evening: two launches by SpaceX within two hours and small change.  

  • Falcon 9 Block 5 carrying O3b mPOWER 3 & 4 from SLC-40 at Cape Canaveral SFS at 5:12 PM ET  followed by 
  • Falcon Heavy carrying ViaSat-3 Americas & Others from Kennedy Space Center at 7:29 PM ET. 

Two launches two hours and 17 minutes apart from two launch complexes 3.6 miles apart.  

This has been a bad week for good weather and thanks to the resulting launch scrubs, these two launches have rolled here from Wednesday.  After other problems moved them to Wednesday from earlier in the month.   

The first launch was delayed an hour until 6:12 PM and went as smoothly as can be.  The booster landed nine minutes later on Just Read The Instructions.  The well-used booster's landing marked the 188th successful landing of the orbital-class Falcon 9 boosters.

The second part of the double header is a Falcon Heavy launch of the ViaSat-3 communication satellite, intended to provide increased coverage over North and South America, at up to Terabit/second rates. The launch is also carrying two other payloads, a telecommunications satellite named Arcturus, built and operated by Astranis Space Technologies to provide internet coverage in the remote regions of Alaska. The third is a cube sat called G-Space 1 that will host multiple payloads.  

This will be the fully expendable configuration of Falcon Heavy, which has never flown before.  A close look at the side boosters will reveal they have no grid fins or landing legs.  

The Falcon Heavy dedicated to the ViaSat-3 mission during an interval when it wasn't raining or cloudy.  Richard Angle photo for Teslarati.

Readers can't tell this but there's about a 20 minute gap in writing this from the bottom of the first picture to here.  The reason was to watch the Falcon Heavy launch, but that went into a hold called by the software controlling the countdown at T-59 seconds.  

The second game of the double header has been called off.  Hey, that happens in baseball (I think).  It will probably be rescheduled for 24 hours, and more likely tonight's original 7:29 than the 8:28 it turned into. 

Thursday, April 27, 2023

US Fish and Wildlife Says No Big Impacts from Starship

I'm honestly surprised to see a statement from the US Fish and Wildlife service this soon after the test flight of Starship, which was a week ago today.  As reported by SpaceNews, their statement was dated yesterday.

In an April 26 statement to SpaceNews, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it documented impacts from the April 20 Starship integrated test flight that lifted off from Boca Chica, Texas, to the neighboring Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge. That documentation started after the highway leading to both the launch site and refuge, closed due to what the agency called “launch pad safety concerns,” opened two days after the flight.

That means this is based on four days worth of work.   

No debris was found on lands belonging to the refuge itself, but the agency said debris was spread out over 385 acres belonging to SpaceX and Boca Chica State Park. A fire covering 3.5 acres also started south of the pad on state park land, but the Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t state what caused the fire or how long it burned.

There was no evidence, though, that the launch and debris it created harmed wildlife. “At this time, no dead birds or wildlife have been found on refuge-owned or managed lands,” the agency said.

It's probably early, then, to see that the Boca Chica equivalent of the Snail Darter (whatever that might be - if it even exists) wasn't inconvenienced by the sand being relocated, or the very high sound pressure levels.  While they found no evidence of harmed wildlife, by now most people have seen some of the snapshots of the chunks of concrete that flew surprisingly long distances.  Like this one that looks like it has got to weigh a couple of hundred pounds.

Photo from one of the professionals stationed there, Patrick T. Fallon of Agence France-Presse via his Twitter account. Patrick is still trying to find his Nikon D5 that got blown away.  Chunks of concrete are scattered over miles from the Orbital Launch Mount. 

It's not clear that the only task SpaceX has is the repair of the OLM.  They still have to complete an investigation of what went wrong and what's required to fix it.  Whatever they conclude will have to be approved by the FAA before they would issue a new launch license or remove the hold on the current one.  We have no word on whether or not there are portions of the Starship or Superheavy that need to be redesigned and probably won't hear such news for a while.  We know that Ship 24 and Booster 7 were both considered obsolete and were launched primarily to learn as much as possible, so it's possible they already noted something that needed redesign and the next ships or boosters already have been modified.

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Yes, The FAA Has Grounded Starship

There have been videos pushing that idea starting Sunday at the latest, but even looking at one or two of them, I couldn't get something I could trace.  This morning, I got a link to Flying magazine's article that confirms the story, saying that the FAA has grounded Starship while what's essentially an accident investigation is completed, as if it was the first flight of a commercial airplane and they have to decide if it will be allowed to fly again.  

The FAA confirmed this in an April 20 statement: “An anomaly occurred during the ascent and prior to stage separation resulting in a loss of the vehicle. No injuries or public property damage have been reported. The FAA will oversee the mishap investigation of the Starship / Super Heavy test mission.”

An FAA spokesperson told FLYING that mishap investigations, which are standard in cases such as this, “might conclude in a matter of weeks,” but more complex investigations “might take several months.”

Most of the Flying article is probably things you already know about; talking about the damage that was apparent early on, the reports from nearby and Port Isabel about the dust falling on everything within minutes of the launch, broken windows and hearing loud sounds. 

The City of Port Isabel said that there is no “immediate concern for people’s health,” but environmental groups are holding judgment until a full investigation can be completed. 

Spokespeople for the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity noted that the particulate emissions may be unsafe to touch or breathe in, and samples will need to be collected and examined to dispel any concerns.

Why sand from a beach six miles away, or even concrete particles the same size as sand, should be dangerous after being thrown by strong winds, I don't know and they don't say.  They mention the noise being dangerous to wildlife in the Boca Chica area, but no mention of how animals at other launch sites react.  The noise levels aren't there all the time, and it's pretty routine in any launch video to see birds flying when the noise starts, presumably going back when the noise lets up within a minute or two. (You should see the alligators on the Cape when a big rocket launches.)

Flying mentions a reporter named Lavie Ohana who was present for the test flight.  Her article on is an interesting read.   Flying's emphasis was that she called it “one of the loudest launches I’ve ever been at”- which it should be since it's the most powerful rocket in the world.  While she says, “In terms of the experience of simply witnessing it first hand, it was possibly the single coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I am so incredibly glad I flew out here to see it, and I will be back for Flight 2,” she's left feeling the vehicle is deeply troubled and won't fly until next year without massive changes.  I don't know that she's qualified to judge that, especially since we knew even less than we do now back on the 21st when she posted that article. 

Sometimes, what appears to be a complex set of problems can come from one, simple root cause.  Sometimes big problems can be fixed quickly by throwing big teams at them.  It's also true that some big problems can't be solved by throwing a big team at them.

The most optimistic things we've heard about the next launch was Elon Musk's early reaction that this can be repaired in "one to two months" but that was before the FAA got involved again.  The FAA is probably going to slow things down more.  Once again, SpaceX could be waiting on them for the next launch permit - after this mishap investigation.  

Unfortunately, there's no good news here to relay.  While Flying goes on to emphasize the reports of a guy who's apparently opposed to the operations at Boca Chica, their source (Politico) goes into the political machinations as various congress critters talk about how they can regulate more.  Yet they conflate this experimental flight of new rocket with space tourism.



Tuesday, April 25, 2023

SpaceX to Take Over Vandenberg SFB Complex 6,

The US Space Force unit that manages the West Coast launch ranges, announced April 24 that SpaceX has been granted approval to lease Space Launch Complex 6 (SLC-6) at Vandenberg Space Force Base.  The lease of the historic pad will give SpaceX its fifth launch pad; two at Vandenberg SFB, two at Cape Canaveral and one at Boca Chica, Texas.  Both the Starbase Boca Chica pad and SLC-6 will be unusable without a lot of construction work

SLC-6 has most recently been used by United Launch Alliance to launch the Delta IV, including the Heavy Lift version, primarily for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) national security missions.  The last Delta IV launch from California was September 24, 2022 and the contracting process has been ongoing.  ULA will consolidate West Coast launch operations for its new Vulcan Centaur at their other launch facility at Vandenberg: SLC-3.  The last Atlas 5 lifted off from SLC-3 in November.

Reports say that, like Florida, SpaceX will dedicate their current Vandenberg launch complex (SLC-4E) to Falcon 9 launches and SLC-6 will be shared between Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches. 

SLC-6 was initially built in 1966 to host the Titan III launch vehicle to launch the Manned Orbital Laboratory. The Manned Orbital Laboratory was subsequently canceled in 1969 before any launches occurred, and work was paused. It wasn’t until 1979 that work continued following SLC-6 being selected as one of the sites to host Space Shuttle launches for the U.S. Air Force. Construction on the pad for future Space Shuttle missions finished in 1986. However, the tragic accident that was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster drastically changed the outlook for the Space Shuttle program and resulted in the cancellation of Space Shuttle launches from SLC-6.

In an interview last week at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Col. Robert Long, commander of Space Launch Delta 3, the group that oversees Vandenberg, said there were “many interested parties” competing for the SLC-6 lease.

He said the Space Force looks at many different factors when allocating launch facilities to commercial providers. “Anytime you take a launch site and you tie that up for years or decades, you want to make sure the government is getting value out of that launch property. And so we go through that entire assessment and then make a decision on who comes next.”

Col. James Horne, deputy director of launch and range operations at the Space Force’s Space Systems Command, said partnerships with commercial launch providers are a matter of national security because the military relies on these companies for access to space.

It seems hard to imagine that in the last couple of years, we're suddenly short of launch facilities in the US, between Kennedy Space Center/Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg SFB.  In 2021, China carried out more orbital launches than the US with 55 missions, compared to 43 by the U.S.  Last year, SpaceX alone did 61 launches and the US as a whole did 78.  This year, SpaceX has a goal of 100 launches with Space Force predicting 132 total launches.  I would guess that chances are good SLC-6 won't see a SpaceX launch this year. 

A SpaceX rendering of a Falcon Heavy on Vandenberg SFB.  Image credit to SpaceX

Monday, April 24, 2023

Japanese Hakuto-R M1 Probe to Land Tuesday Apr. 25, 12:40 PM ET

That's the plan, at least.  The Hakuto-R Mission 1 probe, which I've covered here regularly, is set to attempt to land Tuesday, April 25 at 12:40 PM Eastern, 1640 UTC.  If the probe lands successfully, this will be the first private spacecraft to land on the moon.  

The primary landing site is Atlas Crater, located at the southeastern outer edge of Mare Frigoris ("Sea of Cold"), according to earlier statements from the company.

"Should conditions change, there are three alternative landing sites and depending on the site, the landing date may change. Alternative landing dates, depending on the operational status, are April 26, May 1 and May 3, 2023," ispace officials wrote on April 12.

The mission will be covered live on YouTube by ispace,  with coverage going live at 11:00 AM ET, 1500 UTC.

Screen capture of the channel at the moment. 

When this mission was launched by SpaceX in December, I called it the Multinational Moon Mission.  Hakuto-R is carrying the Rashid lunar rover from the United Arab Emirates space agency, along with an artificial intelligence system from Canadian company Mission Control and a multi-camera imaging system by Canadian company Canadensys Aerospace. 

This isn't the first attempt at a moon landing by a private company.  The first was a mission SpaceX sent to the moon in 2019 for a private company, the Israeli corporation SpaceIL.  The payload was their Beresheet Moon lander.  (Beresheet is Hebrew for "In the Beginning."); Beresheet failed a minute or two before touchdown, but the attempt was still a historic step for commercial spaceflight.

Clearly, this is a big step for ispace and Hakuto-R. Considering there have been times when some thought the mission was about to be lost, they're at a remarkable point.  ispace is planning second and third moon missions no earlier than 2024 and 2025, respectively. 


Update 4/25/13 at 3:15 PM ETQuote from Ars Technica's Eric Berger:  

The Japanese company ispace maintained communication with its Hakuto-R spacecraft until the final moments before was supposed to land on the Moon, the company's founder, Takeshi Hakamada, said Tuesday. His comments came about 25 minutes after the company's lander was due to make a soft touchdown on the lunar surface. Then, they lost contact. As a result, it is highly likely the lander crashed into the Moon.

"We have to assume that we did not complete the landing on the lunar surface," Hakamada said on the company's webcast, his voice filled with emotion. "We will keep going, never quit in our quest."

Listening to his presentation, Hakamada gave me the impression they had contact with the probe until it landed and then lost contact.  This announcement doesn't have that implication.  That aside, ispace is going to keep trying to contact the lander in the hope that it has simply malfunctioned in some way.  They haven't given up at this point. 


Sunday, April 23, 2023

China May Launch Their Version of a Mars Helicopter Before End of '20s

As a little background, the NASA Perseverance Rover and Ingenuity helicopter launched in 2020 with intent for a follow on mission to return samples to Earth, most likely launched by the ESA in the 2028/2029 Mars launch window.  That means the ESA Mars lander would arrive six to eight months later, and the rocks to arrive back on Earth by 2033.  

China has been planning a Mars sample return mission called Tianwen-3 for launch before the end of this decade, probably in the same '28/'29 favorable launch window with sample return very likely to be in the same time frame as the NASA/ESA mission, although they claim return by '31. reports China announced on April 22nd at the International Conference of Deep Space Sciences in Hefei, Anhui province, that they are looking to include their version of Ingenuity in this mission.  

The mission will use a pair of Long March 5 rockets to send two separate spacecraft stacks towards the Red Planet around 2030 with the goal of collecting and returning 500 grams of samples.


The two Long March 5 launches will carry a lander and ascent vehicle and an orbiter and return module respectively. Entry, descent and landing will build on technology used for the Zhurong rover landing as part of China’s Tianwen-1 Mars mission.

The news here is that the landing payload will also have limited capacity to collect samples close to the landing site, using either a six-legged crawling robot or an Ingenuity-like helicopter.  The fact that they don't talk about a rover able to move on its own on Mars for as long as they want it to strikes me as a little strange.  It may or may not have anything to do with problems with that Zhurong rover from Tianwen-1.  The Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) unveiled a prototype of their helicopter in 2021.  You probably won't be surprised to learn that it looks a lot like Ingenuity.  Not an exact copy, but clearly Ingenuity was an inspiration. 

Top image from SpaceNews: The Mars surface cruise drone prototype developed by China’s NSSC. Credit: NSSC/CAS Credit: NSSC/CAS  Bottom image from a post here, linked to at Machine Design

The source article at has some interesting highlights about the mission, but given how preliminary it all appears to be, might not be worth much time reading.  One fact that stood out to me was that the Chinese mission is restricting landings on Mars to very low-lying areas.

Prospective sites required to have an elevation of at least 3,000 meters below the zero-elevation level, or the equivalent to sea level on Earth. This provides the lander with more atmosphere to move through to slow its descent onto the Martian surface.

Almost 10,000 feet below "sea level" - or the equivalent of that on Mars.  I think.

Saturday, April 22, 2023

It's Earth Day 2023

It's time for our annual bacchanalia of the made-up holiday they call Earth Day, my very favorite holiday to make fun of.  Yes, even more than Kwanzaa.   

As befitting the environmental movement, my tribute to Earth Day is almost entirely recycled, and is almost entirely useless.  Plus, it's late.  The only way it could fit the environmental movement better would be if everything I said was factually wrong.  Everything here is factually correct. 

Earth Day, as most of you know, is a holiday first marked in 1970 at the start of the national environmental movement, inspired by the almost entirely discredited book Silent Spring.  Ira Einhorn is one of the main founders of Earth Day, if not the guy who started it.  Ira practiced what he preached: he murdered his girlfriend (less stress on the planet) and composted her body in his closet.  (Reduce, re-use, recycle!)

You won't find Ira Einhorn's name listed in any of the Earth Day promotional literature, as the organizers have taken great pains to distance themselves from this man, at least since he became better known for composting his girlfriend in a trunk in his closet for a couple of years in the late 1970s.

Ira Einhorn died in prison April 3, 2020 as commemorated in the New York Times. It's my belief that another justification for Erf Day was probably the most thoroughly discredited and disproven book in history, The Population Bomb by Paul Ehrlich in 1968.

First published in May of 1968, I recall it being talked about widely and seriously.  It was by a scientist after all.  The Stanford University biology professor famously claimed that population growth would result in resource depletion and the starvation of hundreds of millions of people.  I recall conversations about "hamburger wars" as people fought to the death for dwindling supplies of food.

Ehrlich prophesied that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s (and that 65 million of them would be Americans), that already-overpopulated India was doomed, and that most probably “England will not exist in the year 2000.”

In conclusion, Ehrlich warned that “sometime in the next 15 years, the end will come,” meaning “an utter breakdown of the capacity of the planet to support humanity.”

Last time I checked, England is still there - and India, too.  The number of people on the brink of starvation has been in continuous decline, although the recent attacks on natural gas (an important way to get fertilizer), may make that worse again.  The 15 years before the end of humanity was up in 1983.  Here we are 40 years later and the biggest threat to humanity is the ruling class running a script from this most thoroughly discredited and disproven book.

Let's face it: doomsday prophesy sells, and doomsday from someone with a handful of letters after their name (MS, PhD etc.) sells even better.  Ehrlich was just particularly bad at it.  He famously lost a bet where he picked a "basket of commodities" and bet that these five metals would go up in price in 10 years (1980 to 1990) - they declined in price an average of 57.6% while the  population increased.  Despite being so wrong on so much, he influenced generations of policy makers.

Earth Day is so old that when it started, the climate scare was a coming ice age, not "warming" or just plain "climate change" as they resort to now.  I don't want to get started on that because I could go hundreds of pages on how screwed up that narrative is!  Since it's not really tied to Erf Day, I won't.  

In celebration of Earth Day, then, just remember "nature wants you dead" (a close to home reminder).  Turn on the air conditioner (if you're in my part of the world, it has been on) or the heater.  Burn some charcoal and a hunk of cow or pig.  Turn on all the lights in your house.  Start a big bonfire in your back yard.

Remember, it doesn't count unless the lights can be seen from Proxima Centauri.” 

This column was written entirely from recycled electrons.  No electrons were wasted, disposed of or even inconvenienced.  

Friday, April 21, 2023

I'm Leaning Toward a Simple Explanation

I think everything that went wrong with Starship's first Flight Test can be traced to the OLM and especially the concrete underneath it disintegrating in the eight to ten seconds that the first stage built up enough thrust to lift off.  Flying debris took out engines, and damaged the Hydraulic Power Units (HPUs) that power the engines to gimbal.  A system that's going away on the next generation Raptor engines, to be replaced with some batteries they got from a Tesla.  

Earlier today, I added to the comments on yesterday's post a link to a photograph that showed up today in the thread devoted to the mission.  Later on, I edited the post to include the photograph and edited the comment to tell the story.  This link will take you directly to the photograph.  It shows the damage to the OLM was far worse than we saw yesterday.

It's also worth watching Scott Manley, as usual, who has some good observations and points out things to notice.  At just over 10 minutes, there's a lot of information in it.  This picture is a freeze-frame from T+07 seconds, and I've circled what appears to be a flying L-shaped chunk of concrete.  There are at least two other enormous pieces of debris flying up around the same time in the video (14 to 17 seconds from the start), both to the left and right of this one. Starship is 9 meters diameter (nearly 30feet); that makes the concrete chunk look at least 20 feet long and 5 ft vertically.

Screen capture from Scott's video, processed to enhance contrast and visibility of that chunk by me.

There have been reports of the hydraulic power units (HPUs) failing early, possibly due to chunks like this.  There are reports of damage all around the launch complex.  This video shows a NASA Spaceflight van getting pounded by debris, and smashed up badly, along with a lot of other things being damaged. Cameras, perhaps telescopes, lots of thing get knocked over.

In the early days of building up the "stage zero" launch infrastructure there was talk about building a flame trench or a water deluge system like we typically see at the major launch facilities (KSC, Vandenberg SFB, and so on).  There was a quote going around that Musk had said he had hoped it wouldn't be needed because a water deluge wasn't doable on Mars and I think the trench didn't seem likely, either.  I think the reasons are more mundane.  Starbase Boca Chica is in the middle of miles of federally-controlled wetlands.  The water table is very close to the surface, and any water collected probably would need to be purified in some way, approved by the EPA or both. 

I may be totally off base here, but it seems to me that at Boca Chica they have the boosters and ships for the next few missions queued up.  They will need testing and won't be able to get tested.  The Starship pad and facilities at the Kennedy Space Center are a lot closer to being able to support new tests than Boca Chica, and will be for months.   Another deluge system to add to the wetlands on Cape Canaveral doesn't sound anywhere near as threatening, specifically because it will be "another" water deluge or flame trench, rather than the only one within 500 miles.  They should move those next couple of Starships over here for testing, even to launch the next Starship. 

Thursday, April 20, 2023

The Big Story is the Big Rocket

I'm sure everyone has heard by now that SpaceX launched the booster7/ship24 combination today, for the first test flight of the combination of a Starship and Super Heavy booster.  The combination didn't get quite as far as the so-called "successful failure" of the Relativity Space Terran 1 flight last month.  Terran 1 had a successful first stage and a second stage that didn't ignite properly.  The B7/S24 ship never got to the point of stage separation and trying to light the second stage.  Instead, the Flight Termination System detonated and blew the vehicle apart, after it should have dropped the first stage and gone on to the upper stage.  

Still, I'm inclined to call this one a successful failure, too.  The "Space 2.0" companies, notably led by SpaceX, are characterized by being "hardware rich" - that is, build lots of hardware, test important changes frequently, understand the failure, learn from it, and build more hardware.  The truth is, B7/S24 was fairly far behind the next candidate for flying, which I've heard is to be Booster 9 and Ship 26.  

Comments, photos, and speculations are flying at an enormous rate.  I have a tendency to think, like pretty much every breaking news story we see on the media, some of the first reports are going to be wrong.  Still, there are things we can see ourselves.  In the comments to yesterday's post, an anonymous commenter posted a link to a decent video from the Wall Street Journal.  During ascent, around Max Q, the camera is looking right up the skirt of B7.  It's clear there are six engines that are no longer firing.  I've added red rings about where those engines are. 

You can watch the video here, I need to add, though, that different videos and different photos show different numbers of engines out at different times in the mission.  The video has representation of the engine view showing which engines are out at the lower left of the screen.  If you watch carefully, you'll see that the representation has some engines turn off and then back on.  I don't know if that's really happening.  

Fellow blogger BillB posts a picture from NASA Spaceflight showing eight engines out. 

In the long topic on NASA, I took a photo posted by SpaceX and did some processing on it to get a better look at the engines. 

To me, the pattern of engines that aren't working in this picture is the same as the WSJ video showed, above.

A major question is how much damage has "Stage Zero", the ground infrastructure, suffered.  Lab Padre tweeted this picture of the Orbital Launch Mount, showing the concrete and sand under the mount was blasted out.  Lab calls this "Crater McCraterface".   I did some photo editing to increase the contrast. 

There are also Tweets that show damage to the large storage tanks SpaceX has close to the OLM.  Major construction here could seriously impact the ability to resume testing with another booster/ship combination quickly.  Major construction to improve their water deluge system has been underway, and if they're lucky, a lot of that concrete would have had to have been removed anyway.  

At this point, it looks like the engines failing are a fundamental problem.  Raptor engine problems aren't new, and part of the reason for the Raptor 2 engines is to help alleviate that.  I don't know what engines were on B7; if they were all up to the latest and greatest versions.  That doesn't mean there aren't more problems or bigger problems in the Starship and Super Heavy portions of the vehicle.

There's going to be a lot of conversation about today's flight as analysis proceeds and I expect the story to change.  Learning is part of the fun.

EDIT TO ADD, 4/21/23 @ 4:45 ET: 

This photo posted today to the NASA Spaceflight discussion.

This is the base of the Orbital Launch Mount (OLM) showing how the concrete was blasted of the rebar that it was cast over.  There's some water visible near (in front of) the leg on our left.  It also blasted the cover off that leg - sheet steel, I think. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

It's Almost Like The Last 24 Hours Didn't Exist

The two big stories from where I sit were that Starship is working feverishly to make Thursday's launch attempt, and nobody had any sort of definite clue on when that RHESSI satellite would reenter.  

Both of those stories are exactly the same tonight. 

A site I've been looking at today, Satview, has been updating the RHESSI predictions every few hours.  So what's the latest?  The last post says it was updated at 1515 UTC today, or 11:15 AM EST.  They post two predictions: one from themselves,, and the other from USstratcom (United States Strategic Command).  

  • Satview says reentry begins 4/20 at 0714 UTC; here on the east coast 3:14 AM ET. 
  • USstratcom says 4/19 at 2349 UTC.  As I'm writing, that's about 10 minutes ago, 7:49 PM ET.  

Well, at 7-1/2 hours apart, at least the predictions are closer to each other than last night's 16 hours.

USstratcom prediction on the left, prediction on the right.  The target indicator over the south Pacific west of South America (left) and over Australia (right) are the predicted locations when the reentry begins.  

As for SpaceX and Starship's Integrated Flight Test, there's scant information. quotes Elon as saying,  

"The team is working around the clock on many issues. Maybe 4/20, maybe not," Musk said via Twitter on Tuesday night (April 18).

I've watched enough of the cameras to believe that statement isn't an exaggeration.  It's also true that they always seem to be working around the clock and overcoming obstacles.  It's just that we don't know anything else.  Tomorrow's launch window opens at 8:28 a.m. CT and closes at 9:30 a.m. CT; 62 minutes. 

This morning, we had a Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral, SLC-40, carrying 21 of the new V2 mini Starlink satellites.  During the coverage, one of the commentators said, 

"If we do make an attempt tomorrow, the chances of scrubs are high.  But whether a scrub or liftoff or a rapid unscheduled disassembly, or some combination of all of the above, excitement is pretty much guaranteed."

We'll be watching with our fingers crossed.  

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Keep Your Head Up But Don't Get Crazy About It

A 20+ year old NASA satellite is going to reenter the atmosphere tomorrow night, Wednesday 4/19 at 9:30 PM ET.  That is, at 9:30 +/- 16 hours.  Based on that uncertainty of +/- 16 hours, I take that to mean the point at which reentry becomes certain; that is, absolutely starts, could be any time over roughly +/- 10 full orbits.  The uncertainty of where it starts reentry is the uncertainty in where it ends up.  I'll approximate the 20 full orbits as 25,000 miles each or 500,000 miles.

Let me back up a minute.  The satellite is called RHESSI - for the Reuven Ramaty High Energy Solar Spectroscopic Imager.  The satellite was launched on February 5, 2002 to observe solar flares and coronal mass ejections from its low-Earth orbit.  The goal being to help understand how such powerful bursts of energy are created by our sun.  Starting in 2002 the satellite carried out its mission, but it was eventually decommissioned in August of 2018.

It weighs about 660 lbs, and while these things always burn up to some degree, NASA gives the official odds of being hit by a chunk at 1 in 2,467.  I find it hard to justify that big a chance.  Think of it this way: the surface area of the Earth is just under 197 million square miles. Let's be generous and say the size of the particle that doesn't burn up is a few square yards.  Let's say 10 square yards.  In 197 million square miles, there are 61 trillion 10 square yard patches.  Around 70% of that surface area is oceans, big lakes, and followed by very lightly inhabited areas like mountains and deserts.  If the satellite came down in those areas, the only way to know would be by tracking it.  That brings the number of patches of land down to 30% of 61 trillion or 18 trillion.

Now, the area that the satellite can fall in is smaller than the 18 trillion patches because that's based on the entire surface area of the Earth, including the arctic ice cap, Antarctica, and the few large land masses that far north and south.  The orbit never goes over those areas so the satellite couldn't come down there.  The chances of being hit by debris seem to come down to a tiny object - you; maybe a square yard - getting hit by that 10 square yard debris in maybe 10 trillion possible patches.  It makes the odds of winning Powerball seem certain.  

RHESSI's last orbits, from the RHESSI Wiki Entry

The last time we went through one of these watches was for a Chinese upper stage re-entering.

Monday, April 17, 2023

"We Can't Fly This Morning. Would You Like a Wet Dress Rehearsal?"

That's essentially the question that the mission controllers got this morning when a problem surfaced in the final minutes of the countdown to this morning's Integrated Flight Test.  It was a stuck pressurization valve. So while they had all the money and resources in place the company turned the launch attempt into a Wet Dress Rehearsal, testing the last few things they would test before lighting the engines. 

While systems are in place to pump all of the liquid methane and oxygen back to their insulated storage tanks, during the process of scrubbing the launch SpaceX commentators said the minimum recycle time was 48 hours.  Later in the day, we learned they've chosen Thursday the 20th (yeah... 4/20).  The 62 minute launch window opens at 8:28 a.m. CT and closes at 9:30 a.m. CT.  

Over the last few days a small flood of memories of watching the first test flight of the Saturn V has been coming back to me.  I'm aware that I'm not remembering enough which then causes me to fret over whether or not what I'm remembering is true.  The first flight of a Saturn V was called Apollo 4 and it took place on November 9th, 1967.  Lift off was 7:00 AM ET.  I would have been in 8th grade and 13 years old.  I remember waiting for the launch and then hurrying to the school bus stop, and I remember watching the launch on our black and white Philco TV.  I'd swear I remember watching a camera pointed at the base of the rocket that suddenly went blank as the engine bells came above the deck of the launch platform.  I think I recall reading that the camera was found miles away from the launch pad.  

The Saturn V was the most powerful rocket in the history of the world.  You can argue that in getting 14 men to the surface of the moon, the Saturn V changed everything.  Starship is taller and more powerful than the Saturn V.  It's arguable that Starship can change everything, too.

Looking at a collection of Apollo 4 launch videos on  YouTube, this video has the closest to the view I think I remember, at exactly 6:00 minutes into the video.  The details of what happened to the camera are not mentioned, but I think I recall reading that in the next couple of years.

A few weeks ago, we sweated through the multiple attempts to launch Relativity 1.  I recall a few times when they counted down to the point of no return, where a hold means a long countdown recycle, followed by going into a hold.  I shouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened with the Starship IFT.

I'll count on Eric Berger at Ars Technica for some perspective.  

Opinions are mixed about how successful this flight will be for Super Heavy and Starship. SpaceX founder Elon Musk has given the launch a 50 percent chance of succeeding, but I believe he is probably deliberately lowering expectations here. He has gotten better at that. On the eve of his first rocket launch, the Falcon 1, in March 2006, Musk told a reporter the rocket had a 90 percent chance of reaching orbit.

His first three Falcon 1 launches proceeded to fail.

But since then, SpaceX has gotten rather good at launching rockets. On its debut flight in 2010, the Falcon 9 reached orbit. In 2018, so did the Falcon Heavy. Then, three different versions of Starship prototypes, Starhopper, SN5, and SN8, all successfully launched. So by my count, the last six "new" rockets that SpaceX has debuted have all launched more or less successfully.

Now the hard part is waiting until Thursday morning for the second try.

B7-S24 stacked at sunrise.  SpaceX photo

Sunday, April 16, 2023

The Tenth Anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing

On Friday, PJ Media ran a story on the tenth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, talking about how even now, almost no media talks about the attack and why it happened.  

Ten years ago, on April 15, 2013, a brilliantly sunny Monday afternoon, the Boston Marathon was drawing to a close when two nail bombs exploded in quick succession. They killed two people and wounded well over two hundred, maiming some for life. Before the identity of the bombers became known, the establishment media was full of joyful hope that the killers would turn out to be the Bible-quoting Christian terrorists of media myth. Instead, they were Islamic jihadis. As the tenth anniversary of their attack approaches, the same denial still prevails: no one in America wants to discuss why they did it. 

The anti-American press who desperately wanted another Islamic terrorism incident to actually have been committed by their stereotypical conservative, redneck villains (who only exist in their heads) actually got one of their wishes.  The Tsarnaev brothers were actually Caucasians, just not the "whyte pee-poh" that they envisioned.  That is, they were from the Caucasus region of Europe.  

This was almost all that was talked about in the beginning of the investigation.  On the day of the bombing, within hours of the attack, a writer in Esquire magazine (whose name I will not quote) wrote this:

“Obviously, nobody knows anything yet, but I would caution folks jumping to conclusions about foreign terrorism to remember that this is the official Patriots Day holiday in Massachusetts, celebrating the Battles at Lexington and Concord, and that the actual date (April 19) was of some significance to, among other people, Tim McVeigh, because he fancied himself a waterer of the tree of liberty and the like.”

Clearly, the correct way to punctuate that sentence is with a period after the fourth word.  It should simply read, “Obviously, nobody knows anything.”

The PJ Media article has several examples of this kind of thing, but suffice it to say the bombers were committed Muslims and Jihadists.  It's not a coincidence that the 2023 FBI and DOJ are going after Catholic churches; that's the logical extension of that Esquire author and all the others who dreamed it wouldn't be Islamic terrorism.  The FBI still believes that the next great incident of terrorism will come from conservative Christians who attend church regularly.   

April of '13 was the third year of this blog and although it was a major story, I find I only did one story about it, and that was April 23, eight days after the Marathon, with my view of the lessons learned from the attack and response. 

The start of the 2022 Boston Marathon.  David L. Ryan / Boston Globe via Getty Images via WGBH, Boston.

Saturday, April 15, 2023

The Post-Hurricane Tower Work is Finally Done

Taking a look at previous posts about the tower damage I sustained back in Tropical Storm Ian at the end of last September, it appears the last mention of what I was working on was on January 22nd, three days before my surgery.  I had said I expected to have the short term fix in place before the surgery (Jan. 26).

Knowing the surgery was coming and that I'd be restricted by that in my ability to work for the heart of the best time of year to work on towers and such hardware, I came up with a workaround: a short term and a long term fix.  The short term fix is up there now, but I need to improve that a bit and that should be done before the mandatory time off.  The long term fix is to change my whole method of cranking the tower over.

My attempt to improve that hit a dumb mistake and I had to go back to original short term fix, and that ended up barfed up.  It stayed barfed up until after my two week followup checkup and then I created a temporary fix that was better.  It involved putting two bar clamps on the tower to position the halves of the wooden tower clamp.  I wasn’t supposed to be doing lifting or anything like what I did, but these clamps went up on February 12.  At least the tower was more secure. 

With those clamps in place, I was able to re-cut a 2x4 to replace the one you see there (painted white) that those clamps held in position, (well, the clamps along with a couple of lag screws).  It also replaced the one I barfed up the day before the surgery by turning it over one too many times.

That improved pressure treated 2x4 went up on March 9th, the first day I was cleared by the surgeon’s office to lift more than 25 pounds.  

(yes, that does mean Left and Front)

With the temporary fix in place, it was time to work on the permanent fix for cranking over and supporting the tower a whole new way.  As described in that January post, it started out based on designs I had seen researching the Aluma Towers MP-2 (mounting pole). 

First step was building things in the CAD world and I started in the direction mentioned in that January post of moving the tower to other side of the pipe I crank the tower over against, and changing it so the tower cranks over from the top of the pipe (around 7-1/2 feet) instead of the hinge on the base.  After a few weeks of very little progress, I took the approach of emulating the house bracket, but about a foot lower, and instead of mounting the bracket to the house, attaching the mounting bracket to that 4” schedule 40 aluminum pipe.  

The tower is on the right, of course.  Everything else is structural aluminum and stainless steel hardware.  There are two main arms made of 3” aluminum channels with 1-3/4” tall sides.  The very end of the arm is a piece of solid 1x2.5” aluminum bar 10” long.  Those are the last major design change; when I started out there were going to be pieces of channel attached to the tower with U bolts, but then I had to connect two pieces of that channel meeting at a 30 (or 150) degree angle.  How to do that just evaded me until I had the idea to rotate the channel stock pieces a few degrees and just grab the tower legs with straight, solid pieces of metal.

That 1x2-1/2 required some machining; first, the inside width of that channel is a bit under 2.5” and the bar was a bit over, so it needed to be reduced in width by around 0.040” (just over 1/32 inch).  Second, the inside corners of the channel have about a 1/8” radius, and I opted to just cut off the corners, leaving a flat.  It’s hard to read the dimensions in this view, but it says those two arms are each 4 degrees away from the centerline of the pipe to tower. 

You’ll notice there’s no obvious hardware in the drawing joining the channels and the solid bars.  That was done with a couple of 5/16 bolts.  The U-bolts around the tower legs are 3/8”.  It would be rather trivial to enlarge the 5/16” holes, but they seem pretty stable.

The completed assembly.

This has been in place for one week (since April 7, to be exact).  Last week was the windiest in months, probably the windiest since the two tropical storms.  My plan is to approach storms the way I always had until Ian.  Before, I removed two lag bolts to free the tower from the house bracket and the one mounting screw in the concrete slab for the tower leg.  The bolt that tore off a piece of that leg.  Now I’ll remove that same bolt on that one leg, plus two nuts on each U-bolt around the tower legs.  Then the tower gets cranked over and the antennas removed and stowed for the storm.  Once those are secured, I’ll crank the tower back up and fasten it in place so that there’s no wind load on the antennas pushing on the tower.  I get the feeling doing a dry run of this, or a few of them, would be a good idea.

While I feel awkward not having good mechanical analyses of various loads from varying directions on this bracket, it’s exactly as well-documented and analyzed as the original house bracket. 

At least for the moment, the house bracket is still in place, but there is nothing attached to it.  It will probably be taken down once I figure out what I’ll need to repair where it has been mounted since the early 1990s. 

Friday, April 14, 2023

A Roundup of Small Stories About Big Rockets - 7

It's On - for Monday

Thanks to commenter BillB who added this to last night's post while I was breaking for dinner:

SpaceX received its FAA launch license just before 5 PM CDT on the 14th. They anticipate launching on Monday, 17 April between 07:00 and 09:50.

It is on! -- my blog


Maybe it's thanks to having kids in the '80s, but I can't hear "it's on" without mentally adding, "like Donkey Kong."  According to that SpaceX launches website:

SpaceX is targeting as soon as Monday, April 17 for the first flight test of a fully integrated Starship and Super Heavy rocket from Starbase in Texas. The 150-minute test window will open at 7:00 a.m. CT.

That's 8:00 AM here on the east coast and a 150 minute window means 2-1/2 hours, so 8:00 to 10:30 AM.  Honestly, I'd be moderately surprised if it really went on Monday because it's the first attempt and those frequently have several scrubs and restarts.  

To quote Musk from early February, "Success is far from certain, but excitement is guaranteed." 

B7-S24 stacked at sunrise.  SpaceX photo

SpaceX may lease High Bay 1 in NASA's VAB

While on the topic, Ars Technica's Rocket Report has a few interesting stories about big rockets this week.  The first one is that back in last August, NASA issued an agency announcement asking for industry proposals to lease the Vehicle Assembly Building High Bay 1 at Kennedy Space Center.  This is the landmark building on the Kennedy Space Center where the Apollo Saturn V, Skylab, Space Shuttle (Space Transportation System), International Space Station and Artemis missions all began.  

The longer story is that NASA is said to have chosen the bidder in November but hasn't talked about it publicly.  Agency spokeswoman Patti Bielling declined to name the winner, saying terms are still being negotiated, and "the process does not conclude until the parties execute the lease, at which time NASA will announce the selection."  

Ars Space Correspondent Eric Berger goes on to say:

I bring this up because two people have told me that SpaceX won the competition to use the high bay for its Starship program. The sources said SpaceX does not plan to perform stacking operations inside the VAB, but rather will use the facility for storage and integration of payloads on Starship before flight. This might be an interim usage by SpaceX while the company develops a larger facility on Roberts Road near the Florida spaceport. It sounds like SpaceX will continue to build Starships in South Texas and ship them to Florida for the time being.

Who Will buy ULA?

It was back at the beginning of March when the rumor surfaced that ULA was for sale.  United Launch Alliance is a joint venture ("marriage of convenience") between Lockheed Martin and Boeing formed in 2005 and driven by the US  The purpose of the deal was to ensure that NASA, US DOD and intelligence services had continuous access to Delta and Atlas launch vehicles. 

You would be right to expect that there has been a lot financial analyst-type speculation about various companies.  This week, though, the Space Case substack newsletter makes the case that Lockheed Martin is likely to buy out Boeing and take total control of the company.  The case essentially comes down to that Boeing could use the revenue to shore up their balance sheet while Lockheed Martin can afford the cash to buy them out.

NASA Mars mission confident in New Glenn date 

On February 9th (second story) NASA's ESCAPADE (Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers) Mars mission announced they had chosen Blue Origin's New Glenn to get to Mars, in the next (late 2024) planetary launch window.  Principal investigator for ESCAPADE, Rob Lillis of the University of California Berkeley’s Space Science Laboratory said, “It hasn’t launched yet and we are concerned about that, but having seen the Blue Origin facility at Cape Canaveral, I was much less concerned after seeing all the work they’ve done. I’m confident they will likely be ready for the launch of ESCAPADE.”

They've announced a preliminary launch window to target, August 6 through 15, 2024 but then add the window “is approximate and provisional."  August of '24 is 16 months away.  I wish I had the confidence PI Rob Lillis has that New Glenn will have a positive flying record in less than a year and a half .

Thursday, April 13, 2023

China Practicing Landing "Boosters"

CAS Space, a spinoff from the state-owned Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), has begun testing a small vehicle doing vertical takeoffs and landings on ships in the sea off the coast of Haiyang in eastern China's Shandong Province.  

When they say "small vehicle," well, it's not quite 7 feet tall.  It's 2.1 meters or 6 foot 10.7 inches tall and 93 kilograms or just under 205-pounds.  We specify vehicle because it's not a rocket.  It's powered by twin jet engines each with a thrust of 550 newtons.

CAS has been running these tests since the first of the year and there's a video of one of these tests at the linked article.  The little vehicle takes off from land, moves to a vessel offshore, lands, then lifts off again from that barge and rises to 1000 meters (they report).  They say the test flight was 10 minutes long while the video is 1:14 so the vast majority of the flight is deleted.

CAS Space aims to launch its own reusable orbital rockets in the future, as well as a suborbital rocket for space tourism, in a similar fashion to U.S. firm Blue Origin and its New Shepard.

A CAS Space engineer told Chinese state media outlet Global Times that the firm may hold a first test flight of a near-space scientific experiment platform as early as the end of 2023.

CAS is not alone in aiming to develop reusable rockets in China.  The main, state-operated company in China, CASC, is working on a reusable version of the Long March family, called Long March 8.  Other private firms both inside and outside of China are working toward a similar goal.  The article mentions Landspace and iSpace and we've heard that the European Space Agency is also working on reusable rockets.  Reusability changes everything.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Relativity to Move On to Terran R

Those who watched the Terran-1 first flight that never made it to orbit, the "successful failure," have witnessed the only flight of Terran-1 there will ever be.   

Relativity Space has announced they are proceeding into development of the larger Terran-R, and they're saying it's going to be bigger than they talked about before.  

(I clipped off the time tag, but Twitter says it was posted at 10:20 AM Wednesday - I assume EDT)

Of course, there's that tiny, minor matter of the failure that kept the second stage from firing properly and the first mission from making orbit.  CEO Tim Ellis says that they're not done with their failure analysis but their understanding is improving.  

(W)hen the Aeon engine's main valves were commanded to open, they opened slower than expected. There was also a problem with the oxygen pump, likely due to a "vapor bubble" at its inlet. As a result of all this, the engine's gas generator did not light, and the engine never reached full power.

The second stage would continue to climb along its (now) free-parabolic trajectory, reaching a max height of 134 km before falling back into the Atlantic.  On the whole, though, the company feels good about their first attempt.  After all, they did better than some other companies have done on their first flight, and among their most important goals was to demonstrate the 3D printed rocket could handle all the stresses it would be expected to, which it clearly did.  

So Relativity is dropping any work on the smaller vehicle and moving to the Terran R. Not only that, but they're increasing the size and payload capacity of the Terran R compared to earlier specs.  

  • The first stage will be fully reusable with a rated life of 20 missions.  The second stage will be expendable "for now." 
  • It will be capable of 23.5 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. Additionally, an expendable version of the Terran R rocket will carry 33.5 metric tons to low-Earth orbit. The Falcon 9 is rated for 22.8 metric tons to LEO, but in both cases, the actual payloads depend on the desired orbit.  One number doesn't fit all. 
    • Falcon Heavy is rated 63.8 metric tons to LEO. 
  • Terran R will be powered by 13 Aeon engines. This corresponds to 3.35 million pounds of thrust. This puts it solidly between Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket, which has 3.85 million pounds, and the version of United Launch Alliance's Vulcan rocket with four strap-on, solid rocket boosters at 3.1 million pounds of thrust.
  • Relativity is dropping the idea of additively manufacturing the entire Terran R rocket. Ellis said the Terran R will still be a "3D printed rocket," but initial versions (at least) will use aluminum alloy straight-section barrels, in response to "overwhelming market demand" for a vehicle of this size.  
  • First stage reuse plans look like SpaceX.  The returning boosters will combine grid fins and using different numbers of engines at different times during the return arc.  They'll land on a drone ship off the SE US coast and be refurbished at facilities on Cape Canaveral.

This is a major undertaking and while Relativity looks to be well-positioned for it, there's no guarantee, of course.  Relativity has more than $1.3 billion in fundraising, a large factory in Southern California, an engine test site at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, and facilities at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.  It has a staff of about 1,000 people.  In addition, they have a customer backlog of $1.65 billion in launch service agreements and an additional $3.68 billion in the customer pipeline.    

The negative side of this is delaying the first launch of the new Terran R to 2026, from the aspirational date of 2024 they've talked about before.

It's impressive to me that a company as young as Relativity Space can be credibly recognized as likely to accomplish this.  NASA and commercial satellite customers have voiced wanting a second company to step forward and challenge SpaceX on innovation, price, and reliability.  Tim Ellis correctly sees that this lane remains open with questions about Vulcan's long-term future, Blue Origin's slow movement on New Glenn, and Rocket Lab's focus on a smaller medium-lift rocket, Neutron.

Relativity graphic showing the features of Terran.