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Friday, April 28, 2023

The Great Divide

Like most people with an interest in spaceflight, I watched SpaceX’s launch of a Starship vehicle on April 20. Following up on that liftoff, yesterday I had an opportunity for an in-depth viewing of the events from that day, courtesy of the Everyday Astronaut website, which has crafted an excellent collection of launch angles gathered into a single video. It’s a 14-minute portrait of the doomed flight of – I’m sure you can say it with me by now – “the most powerful rocket ever launched!”

From a safe distance the liftoff of SpaceX’s first Starship vehicle appears to be a nearly serene spectacle. Photo: SpaceX

My reactions during this granular viewing of the new video were not much different than my feelings witnessing the initial launch video stream. From the prolonged pad blasting hurling debris and an oddly drifting liftoff to the destruction of the vehicle after control was ultimately lost, any sense of wonder was suppressed somewhat by a series of “That doesn’t look right…” and “Is that supposed to do that?” moments.

One of the more obvious “that doesn’t look right” moments of the Starship launch, as numerous engines in the Super Heavy first stage assembly appear to have not ignited or have failed. Screen grab: SpaceX Video

In the days since the Starship’s short-lived and explosive flight, there has been a lot of scorching debate over the development methodologies of both NASA and SpaceX. I’m optimistic that there are people cheering on all spaceflight developments - no matter the source - as a silent majority. But there has been no shortage of hot-headed vitriol publicly expressed in the wake of the Starship’s ascension, perhaps inevitably reflecting the kind of divisiveness now characterizing American society.

Many people on one side criticize NASA for swallowing massive outlays of government funding in service of what they perceive to be a plodding pace of progress. The agency’s supporters point to last year’s first unmanned mission of the Space Launch System, one that successfully sent the massive vehicle and its Artemis payload into orbit, followed by a lengthy excursion to the moon where numerous orbital exercises were achieved before a successful return to Earth. Striking back, critics bizarrely lambast SLS for its dependence on older, proven engine technology, as if pulling off what was essentially an incredibly complex proof-of-concept lunar mission should not really count.

SpaceX, on the other hand, is often judged by rapid progress that many believe is measured in the outcome of “try it and see what happens” moments. The attitude is personified by Elon Musk’s April 14 tweet: “Success maybe, excitement guaranteed.” It’s an approach that has drawn the passionate support of a huge SpaceX fan base, with a disturbing undercurrent bearing cheers for the megalomaniac musings of the erratic, polarizing Musk.

Food for debate: if Starship was a NASA program, would a flight at this development stage ever have been attempted?

A SpaceX Starship is envisioned as the lunar landing vehicle for NASA’s Artemis program, carrying astronauts from orbit around the moon to the surface. Conceptual Image: SpaceX

Regardless, SpaceX and NASA are locked in as partners in the exploration of our solar system and the ramping up of ambitions for manned spaceflight, dependent on each other. One can only hope that the serious working relationships necessary among both entity’s branches of administration, science, and engineering are shielded from the hot keyboard conflicts being waged by the public on social media battlefields.


Starship launch video collated by Everyday Astronaut: