Failure of SpaceX prototype part of development process

A view of the topography and construction site at Boca Chica, Texas, near Boca Chica Beach at SpaceX Starship Assembly Site Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2019, as SpaceX constructs their new test vehicle known as Starship SN1. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald via AP)

The failure of SpaceX Starship SN1 prototype on Friday was a setback for a project that’s already behind schedule, but we don’t join the many people who have taken to social media accounts and seem to be taking far too much delight in the company’s misfortunes.

And that’s fine; finding fault is what trolls do.

The huge SN1, which looked like a shiny grain silo, was destroyed Friday night during a pressurization test using liquid nitrogen at the Boca Chica Beach launch pad. Video of the event shows the spacecraft unexpectedly launch itself into the air and implode before crashing back down to earth.

Had the test been successful, SpaceX had planned a static test fire later this month of the three Raptor rockets that would propel the Starship, followed by a short “hop” test flight, much like the initial testing of the Mk1 prototype that took place last spring at Boca Chica.

Critics flooded the internet with their opinions over the weekend, but little has come from SpaceX other than simple descriptions of what happened and statements of continued commitment to the project.

Some might see the lowlevel reaction as an effort to downplay the mishap. Others might not be surprised, as this is exactly what the testing process is for — to find weaknesses and correct them. Moreover, it’s rare that the development of any major technological project progresses without some, sometimes catastrophic, failure. Anyone who has seen historic film of NASA’s development of the Gemini and Apollo projects probably remembers the many failures the national space agency endured on its way to sending people into space, and ultimately to the moon.

SpaceX won a NASA contract in 2014 for manned missions, such as sending new crew members to the International Space Station. The first manned mission was scheduled for 2017, but the company didn’t make the deadline. Of course, it’s best to do it right rather than do it fast.

SpaceX certainly has the benefit of NASA’s work, but it is breaking new ground in many ways. For example, SpaceX is building the Starship from stainless steel rather than pressurized aluminum like NASA does. Steel is stronger but much heavier, requiring new energy computations and experimentation — especially given SpaceX’s goal of bringing as much of the spacecraft as possible back safely in controlled landings.

Last year’s MK1 tests also suffered delays, once when a wind gust toppled the craft, then when the top popped off during its own testing process. Several weeks later, however, the smaller capsule successfully blasted off, then landed several hundred feet away.

We expect company engineers will learn from this latest failure, and use the information to improve the next version as they work toward a final product that can complete its mission: sending people into space, perhaps as far as Mars.

We look forward to the project’s continued progress, knowing that more hurdles could appear along the way. Once SpaceX rockets are launching people from Boca Chica into the great depths of space, we’re sure that we’ll see plenty of celebratory postings online.