Starship post-mortem

After the biggest rocket in the world exploded shortly after launch, it’s time to figure out what went wrong. Mark Sumner provides the long detailed analysis, while Scott Manley gives us a video.

I’m not a space guy or engineer, but here’s my shorter summary: an important piece of the starship technology was the launch pad, or Stage 0. The rocket was so powerful that it destroyed Stage 0, sending massive lumps of concrete flying everywhere that smashed the engines. You’d think that the engineers would have been aware of these potential dangers, but someone decided they didn’t need flame diverters or water cooling jets. That someone was Elon Musk himself.

Even shorter summary: Elon Musk’s incompetence blew it up.

Now I really want to look on the bright side, so I have a suggestion. Elon Musk really likes money, so he should sell tickets for the next flight — big money tickets that only billionaires could afford. Promise them a grand party in space, with Elon Musk at the helm to show that he’s confident it’ll work. Pack it with a dozen billionaires as passengers. Then launch it. I’ll cheer the entire duration of its flight, and cheer even louder at the end.

It could be a glorious Billionaire Disposal System, but don’t call it that. Don’t want to tip them off.


  1. wzrd1 says

    The denialists have already started. Claimed, “they planned separation at 60 km, but when thrust was lost, they tried at 40 km altitude” and “they weren’t planning to recover the first stage, but allow it to crash into the ocean”.
    Both bullshits contradicted on the filed flight plan.
    So, either the rocket went to wrack and ruin due to muskrat’s incompetence or SpaceX filed a falsified flight plan and will be permanently prohibited flying anything ever again. Falsification of official documents, to whit, the flight plan, is a felony and denial of flight privileges and loss of licensure is the usual result. Being an idiot is still legal.

    Oh, the deluge system does more than cool the launching pad. It’s also noise abatement, as over 200 db of loud has damaged or destroyed rockets in the past. That, being an approximate number, as maximum loudness in air is 194 db, when troughs between waves literally reaches a vacuum.
    And my parents thought my stereo was loud… ;)

  2. acroyear says

    What gets me are people still calling this a ‘success’ ’cause it got off the ground at all.

    I see the opposite: if NASA’s Artimes 1 had exploded (prematurely – the intention was always to destroy it) due to such a fundamental design flaw, heads would be rolling in Congress and the whole project shelved.

  3. wzrd1 says

    So, the Antares system isn’t allowed to fly out of NASA facilities? One blew apart launch facilities on Wallops Island in 2014, so obviously it’d be cancelled and never allowed on a NASA launch pad again, given the cost of replacing that entire launch facility.

    Oh, your fingers betrayed you, it’s Artemis. You should see some of the abominations mine give me when they betray me.

  4. mordred says

    @2 What’s funny is that I read quite a few times that the launch was a succes because it did not immediately crash and destroy the launch pad – it didn’t need to!

    Comparing the comments to Musks desaster with those about NASA having to abort the first Artemis launches on some IT forums was was also really funny: Musk’s rocket blowing up was a success while NASA having some problems with the preparations showed how completely incompetent they are and all space travel should go private. Yeah…

  5. birgerjohansson says

    PS I do not apologise for plugging Animarchy and LazerPig – they provide military-associated comment with a minimum of bias compared to the #*☆¿ shit elsewhere.
    Now back to Musk and his “success”. I like explosions. And if they eventually make the stuff work, it is win-win.

  6. birgerjohansson says

    Mordred @ 5
    Yes, NASA are the Democrats of space!
    So Musk would be… space Trump?

  7. says

    So the Saturn V had five big engines. Starship launched with a booster that had 30. Telemetry says things started going after about five of these 30 engines failed. SpaceX was a brute force solution using the one engine they developed while Saturn was elegance itself. Starship was incredibly similar to the N1, the Russian moon rocket. It also had 30 engines in it’s launch stage. It also suffered failed engines at launch and as such was a complete failure as a rocket. The Soviets gave up after four tries. Let’s see how long SpaceX takes to give up.

  8. birgerjohansson says

    Ray Ceeya @ 9
    Ironically the Soviet engineers were close to fixing the last problem of the N1 when the Politburo closed down the project.
    Using two N1 rockets they could have launched a direct ascent Moon mission and been able to land far from the lunar equator.

  9. says

    @11 Which means SpaceX is somewhat behind where the Soviets were during the 60s LOL. I don’t care how clever the computers are, without reliable engines the whole program is sunk. 83% reliability just isn’t good enough not by a long shot. 83% on the engine is so far, 0% for the shit. I’ll be keeping score. Lets watch good old fashioned, built to a price capitalism in process.

  10. says

    That someone was Elon Musk himself.

    It’s noticeable that every time he gets personally involved, things crash and burn (literally or otherwise).

  11. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “It could be a glorious Billionaire Disposal System, but don’t call it that. Don’t want to tip them off.”

    B-Ark. Give some creationists tickets also, too.

  12. KG says

    It could be a glorious Billionaire Disposal System

    In line with us woke snowflakes’ insistence on “diversity”, the flight must include a female billionaire. I nominate J.K. Rowling!

  13. HidariMak says

    LykeX @ 15: “It’s noticeable that every time he gets personally involved, things crash and burn (literally or otherwise).”

    As I’ve said elsewhere, you’d think that Musk would’ve learned from his Teslas, and bailed when it was obvious that disaster was imminent.

  14. StevoR says

    @ Ray Ceeya : Pretty sure even with just this one launch SpaceX got further into a flight than the N1 did..

    Hmm.. Lessee :,_serial_3L

    Of the four N1 launches, #1 blew up 50 seconds, #2 blew up “a few moments” after lift off, #3 at 50 seconds & #4 at 110 seconds after lift off.

    SpaceX Starshp lasted for 3 minutes 59 seconds.

    After one launch.

    For the second one schedule for perhaps a few months time :

    Guess we’ll see.

    I am stillconfident that they willget there intheend as tehir record sso far prove sthem very impressively capable of doing. How many attempst to land a resusable rocket on a pad out at sea again?

  15. ardipithecus says

    Anyone who thinks this is a good billionaire disposal system is putting on heirs.

  16. StevoR says

    Sigh. I swear this computer changes letters around on me after typing them.. & ahs abroken spacebar.

    Fix : I am still confident that they will get there in the end as their records so far proves them very impressively capable of doing. See :

    How many attempts to land a resusable rocket on a pad out at sea again?

    @19. HidariMak : As I’ve said elsewhere, you’d think that Musk would’ve learned from his Teslas, and bailed when it was obvious that disaster was imminent.

    Remember this?

    See also :

    Like him or not – I don’t, he’s a douche – Musk did stick with them and Tesla didn’t die. So respect where due (mostly the wokers but still) I think.

  17. StevoR says

    @12. larpar : “So, Musk needs to cool his jets…. literally.”

    Also toughen up his (launch pads) skin a bit better and stop blowing chunks and digging (rocket jet blast crater) holes..

  18. says

    @20 StevoR
    Correct, we shall see. But in my mind 30 engines means 30 major points of failure. If they can’t get those Merlins up to about a 99% reliability rating, then Starship will fail repeatedly just like the N1. They can fly around all they want but the launch system has yet to be proven at max q for its mission requirements. Heavy lifting or lunar insertion. They aren’t there yet.

  19. chrislawson says

    Yep, the Saturn V rockets were amazing. Still the only rockets to launch humans beyond LEO. 13 launches with no loss of life or payoad, 11 almost perfect (even when struck by lightning during launch), and all done 50+ years ago.

  20. StevoR says

    @ ^ Ray Ceeya : Yes but its very early days. Just the first test flight.

    The LEM was seen as a lemon once too. Gus Grissom literally put an actual lemon fruit on it as a joke. But it put a dozen human individuals on our planet’s largest natural satellite.

    Every point on a rocket is a potential failure point from engines to O-rings, fire suppression to parachutes. So much – pretty much everything – has to work right or disaster and its, well, literally rocket science. Amazingly, it actually works and we’ve shown we can actually do it whether that “we” is Gagarin’s Vostok 1 or NASA’s Apollo 8 and 11 and even 13 or China’s Shenzhou 5 launching their first taikonaut or SpaceX’s,, well, see list linked at #22 here. People build and fly the most astounding flying machines. Keep doing things nay sayers say nay we’ll never do. They’ll do this too, I’m sure.

    Remeber people even scientists said we’d never fly planes just before we flew them and they said we’d never climb Chomolungma / Sagarmāthā / Mt Everest after we’d actually done it. Clarke’s first law applies. ( )

  21. UnknownEric the Apostate says

    Starship postmortem: Although they built this city on rock & roll, in the end, something did stop them now.

  22. silvrhalide says

    This is the “success” that you get from a bunch of H-1B engineers in goblin mode.

    Why, exactly, is most of the world in sycophantic awe of two asshole billionaires, Muskrat and Bozo, building various overhyped and ultimately, crap spacecraft? Personally, I would not get into anything built by a guy whose earthbound vehicles have braking, guidance and battery power issues OR the guy who made his billions by being the Wal-Mart of the internet, both of whom are renown for having shitty, toxic workplace environments. Doubtless the sort of thing that allows employees to do their best work.

    Also, that looks like 7 engines, not 6 out on Starship.
    Five out of the seven are on the same side. No wonder Starship kept rotating–they’re lucky they had enough time to blow it up before it became a lawn dart.

    And WTF is with the rocket itself being built out of steel so thin that the rocket can’t be tilted, combined with the launchpad arms actually releasing the rocket before the launch sequence?! They’re lucky the engines didn’t misfire on the ground, which would have sent the rocket over on its side. Splat.

    Was this clusterfuck rocketry exercise ever even designed to fly in real-world conditions? Seems like the first piece of space junk or bird strike would be the end of this paper mache´ spacecraft. Assuming it even made it into space.

  23. says

    Spectacular and eye-catching as they are, launch failures themselves don’t mean a project such as this are a bad idea and should be shelved. Refusal to comply with reasonable time-tested ground-safety regulations, however, is a whole ‘nother matter. #QElon’s incompetent meddling in such basic and important matters, and the indifference he’s shown toward everyone living near his self-aggrandizing experiments, should not go unnoticed or unpunished.

    We need to shoot down our entire attitude of “genius titans of industry must never be questioned or hindered!” once and for all, and start treating ALL of #QElon’s companies — Twitter, SpaceX, Tesla, Theralink Neuralink, all of them — as responsible adults who are expected to obey the laws and respect other responsible adults as equals, instead of brushing us all off as ignorant peasants who can be ignored or bullied into silence.

  24. says

    It’s been suggested by more than one commenter that Musk decided Starship just had to be launched on 4/20, no matter what. Because 4/20 is weed day. Yes, that wasn’t the original launch date, but I can imagine Musk deciding to go ahead because it was that date.

  25. says

    @26 StevoR
    Alright Stevo, you want some rocket science? Here’s some math. I said that in that configuration the Merlin had an 83% reliability rating. Sure it’s one launch so the current results are 0% but 25 out of 30 engines worked so from that perspective it’s “successful” at around 83%. Apollo had TWO engine failures. Across 17 flights. 17*5=85. 83/85= 97. 97% of the Saturn V engines DID NOT FAIL. That’s the god standard. That’s what SpaceX needs to achieve BEFORE they put any humans on one of their death traps.

  26. wzrd1 says

    Raging Bee, regulating destruction of his rocket is already present, beyond safety concerns, it’s investors taking him to court for accepting risks that made no business sense that seriously hampers some risk taking.

  27. wzrd1 says

    BTW, I did have two previous entry attempts, which explained why the risk was excessive and one even explained why the rocket was rotating (it’s supposed to, just as Apollo did, one spin stabilizes or fin stabilizes usually). Looks to have gone into the spam trap, even if one entry lacked any links.
    Gist: damage from fragments, likely, but minimal compared to damage from noise.

  28. says

    Raging Bee, regulating destruction of his rocket is already present…

    I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about regulation of the launch pad and other ground structures, and safety features such as noise-dampening and redirection of rocket exhaust. #QElon’s willful disdain for such already-known measures is just another symptom of America’s “rich brats are smarter than everyone else combined” problem.

  29. says

    Now I’m really impressed with the launch of SLS. Despite all the criticism, it had a successful first launch, despite a few delays.

    SpaceX seems to tolerate launch and prototype failures more than other companies and agencies. They crashed a few Starships before SN 15 made a successful landing, for example.

    I agree with Raging Bee that SpaceX was reckless with their launch site. They knew Super Heavy’s exhaust could damage the the tower and facility. Now it’s probably to take months to get the facility ready for another attempt.

    I’m not even sure if they’ll have a lunar Starship ready by 2025 or 2026 at this rate. Maybe NASA should have gone with a more conventional lander instead.

  30. says

    @37 “I’m not even sure if they’ll have a lunar Starship ready by 2025 or 2026 at this rate. ”
    LMAO yeah I’m certain they won’t. Good thing the next moon landing is slated for 2030 at the soonest. I remember all the dude bros dissing on SLS for years but end of the day, the slow steady government program is beating out the private attempts. I hope those same dude bros lose all their money on the crypto market because well… They earned this fail.

  31. wzrd1 says

    Well, concrete takes a full month to cure. So, there went at least a month and likely, another two months for prep work on new structures.
    Given the damage, trusting it to hold another heavy rocket is an excessive risk that’d likely result in catastrophic failure during assembly or worse, fueling.

  32. says

    Angry Astronaut has some nice close up shots of the launchsite if you’re interested.

    This really just gets worse and worse. Much like Elon.

  33. says

    It’s an interesting gamble, if SpaceX made it willfully: avoid water curtains, blast deflectors, and see if that’s ok using an unmanned flight.

    Musk doesn’t seem to be that good a strategist. It also may be that NASA and FAA are less impressed by the big explosion than the Musk fans.

    One premise I heard for the launch without water curtains and deflectors is that a launch off Mars would not have such things. But, good point – the rocket is going to land end-up on gravel, sand, and rocks? This does not seem to be thrashed out, yet.

  34. numerobis says

    Ray Ceeya: are you unaware that humans have been flying on SpaceX rockets already? Or that SpaceX has the safest rocket at the moment with the falcon 9?

  35. numerobis says

    The idea that because on Mars you won’t have a proper landing pad you shouldn’t have one on Earth is pretty daft. You’re going to be using a heck of a lot less thrust on Mars after leaving the entire first stage and much of the second stage fuel back on Earth.

  36. says

    Across 17 flights. 17*5=85. 83/85= 97. 97% of the Saturn V engines DID NOT FAIL. That’s the god standard. That’s what SpaceX needs to achieve BEFORE they put any humans on one of their death traps.

    Agreed, but Rocketdyne blew up a whole lot of prototype F-1 engines until they finally, experientially, hit on the right configuration of holes in the injector plate. They had one successful static test with the F-1 and then flew people on it right away. I heard this from an old NASA guy at Kennedy, back in 2019. He said that “the right stuff be damned we all thought that anyone who sat on one of those things was incredibly brave” I feel the same way about SpaceX’ roman candles.

  37. says

    @43 numerobis
    LOL we have a real Musk Fanboi here folks. They haven’t even made LEO with Starship yet and you’re talking about MARS? What kind of pot you and Elon smoke? I want some.

  38. StevoR says

    @32. Ray Ceeya : Yes but from what I gather a lot of those failures were due to damage from debris impacts from digging that crater. I expect they’ll be fewer engine failures when a proper launch pad that doesn’t launch a lot of flying chunks of concrete and high velocity sand and gravel shrapnel is in place and fire suppression system are working better. 83% given what happened doesn’t seem too bad in that light.

  39. says

    From the Australian satirical song F-111:

    After due consideration, I’ve found a proper use:
    They should take one from the hanger and fill it up with juice,
    Send it hurtling down the runway on its final one-way ride
    With a trembling Prime Minister bound and gagged inside.

  40. Alan G. Humphrey says

    If there are no preparations on Mars using robotics to send raw materials, build, and test a landing site, then I predict the first human trip Mars will be a very memorial mission.

  41. wzrd1 says

    @40, he’s easily impressed, as that is the ejection zone predicted for pretty much any unusual event. Now, had concrete chunks the size of his head been propelled a half mile, then I’d be impressed.
    More worrisome is rebar stripped out of the concrete and thrown, plus blocks with lengthy rebar thrown, that implies much wider and deeper damage to the concrete. I also suspect they used the wrong aggregate for that application, needing an aggregate that retains less to no moisture and a lot stronger of an aggregate, which of course costs more money.
    Still, I know to use Muskrat for risk analysis. Have him do the risk analysis, then do the opposite of what he recommends.

    Another odd thing, he missed the ullage motor firing, which caused the excessive yaw. That suggests an out of sequence activation of the motor that normally would’ve oriented stage 1 for controlled entry, but should never activate when the first and second stages remain stacked together.

  42. says

    I also suspect they used the wrong aggregate for that application
    I noticed that as well. The white blocks are quarts which implies the pad was made with good quality 3/4″ minus. Good but not fine enough to take what was essentially a controlled explosion. The 1/4″ rebar also implies that it was under engineered. I used to build foundations for houses and buildings back in the day even in normal nor-rocket applications 1/2″ is standard. End of the day they blew up their own launch site and that is a spectacular fail.

  43. wzrd1 says

    Still, most didn’t look like thermal damage, it looked more like shock damage. Otherwise, there’d be some fusing present, glazing, anything other than clean fractures.
    That points at overpressure, likely secondary to destructive noise levels from that much thunder going on at close proximity, which would’ve been abated with that deluge based sound/overpressure abatement system that they entirely failed to even consider installing.
    Which makes the fail not spectacular, but epic, as zero consideration was given to the scaled up effects of a class of rocket designed to loft lunar expedition mass at the moon.

    What was really needed was some pinot Grand Fenwick…

  44. birgerjohansson says

    Saturn V had stage separation at 60 km.
    Since Starship had a two-stage configuration I would have expected a stage separation even later.
    I do not have much trust for official claims. Not anymore.

  45. birgerjohansson says

    A trip down memory lane- there were two unmanned launches of Saturn V. There were problems that nearly lead to triggering the self-destruction function but both launches worked out and the problems were solved for later rockets.

    Remember, this was done under severe time pressure (the big NASA budget of the time helped).
    BTW will the new lunar lander take off from the Moon with the same engines used to land it?

  46. Doug Little says

    Ray @24,

    It’s 33 Engines on the first stage.
    They are called Raptors, Merlin is the engine that is installed on the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Incidentally Falcon 9 is the most reliable rocket ever created, Starship will eventually surpass it. Starship is very much still a development project, from the pad to the structures that make up both superheavy and starship to the engines themselves.
    Spacex does not operate like NASA or a traditional aerospace company. Iterative design and validating those designs as early as possible is how it operates. Yes the launch was a success, we found many areas where we will be better next time.

  47. Doug Little says

    Bee @35

    Questioning the requirements has served us well throughout the development of Falcon. If we listened to the status quo we would not be reusing first stages or dominating the launch industry. Starship will be no different.

  48. says

    One premise I heard for the launch without water curtains and deflectors is that a launch off Mars would not have such things.

    That’s AT LEAST as stupid as #QElon’s incessant weed jokes.

    If we listened to the status quo we would not be reusing first stages or dominating the launch industry.

    “We?” You work for that lying incompetent piece of shit?

    And please stop pretending that “your” ignorant disregard for known ground-safety practices is the same as “listening to the status quo.” It only makes you sound like a 13-year-old kid calling his parents “nazis” when they tell him/her not to do drugs. Did you even read ANY of the cited articles about damage to nearby towns, cars and buildings?

  49. says

    And please stop pretending that “your” ignorant disregard for known ground-safety practices is the same as “listening to the status quo.”

    Sorry, that sentence SHOULD read: “And please stop pretending our only choices are “your” ignorant disregard for known ground-safety practices vs. “listening to the status quo.”

  50. Doug Little says

    Yes I work at SpaceX on the manufacturing side. I can’t comment on the decisions, I’m not in the loop on that, that lead up to the FAA giving us our launch license, but they did grant it. We did have a water deluge system in place to suppress acoustic vibrations, but no flame diverter or trench.

  51. Steve Morrison says


    That’s the god standard.

    An interesting choice of standard, especially for Pharyngula!
    “FtB, the blog network for people who don’t believe in gold”

  52. says

    CNBC – “SpaceX Starship explosion spread particulate matter for miles”:

    SpaceX launched the largest rocket ever built for the first time on Thursday from its Boca Chica, Texas, spaceport. The Starship spacecraft, designed to fly people on a Mars mission someday, lifted off the launch pad then blew up in mid-flight, with no crew on board.

    Now, residents and researchers are scrambling to assess the impact of the explosion on local communities, their health, habitat and wildlife including endangered species. Of primary concern is the large amount of sand- and ash-like particulate matter and heavier debris kicked up by the launch. The particulate emissions spread far beyond the expected debris field.

    As a result of the explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded the company’s Starship Super Heavy launch program pending results of a “mishap investigation,” part of standard practice, according to an email from the agency sent to CNBC after the launch….

    More at the link.

  53. says

    “As a result of the explosion, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)…”

    …did what it damn well should have done BEFORE this launch.

  54. wzrd1 says

    @57 Doug Little, questioning requirements and not meeting them is how one acquires a fundamental breach of contract finding and penalties. Questioning requirements and the requirements are changed needs a contract modification and that’s the mark of a good contractor.
    Just a clarification, for those who’ve never operated under a government contract.

    A 3 engine fail out of the gate, not unusual and looks to be within launch tolerances. The other failures, from my singular viewing of the launch and flight suggests a possible failure within the booster, the degree of ejecta suggesting a possible turbopump failure. Does each engine have a dedicated turbopump or are some shared? Approximately where in the booster are the fuel, oxidizer and turbopumps located?
    Some events were apparent during max-Q, but some preceded max by enough to suggest at throttle up, which helps point toward what failed.
    I’m still astonished at the stack holding together as it cartwheeled through the sky, as most stacks failed catastrophically by the time yaw reached 7 – 10 degrees.

    A review of videos tonight showed one view that I missed, there was indeed a suppression system drenching the flame path, but to be honest, it seemed a bit anemic for that much exhaust. But, that’d require a lot of calculation beyond my level of understanding, it’s just an impression overall.

    As for iterative design, Apollo and well, most other launch vehicles went through the same thing. Each vehicle was quite unique in its own way as lessons learned were applied to the next vehicle. In space flight, everything’s still experimental, we’re not grinding out assembly line spaceflights yet and are nowhere close.
    And a reminder, the Apollo program was plagued throughout the program with pogo oscillation, which occasionally even late in the program resulted in an engine shutting down. A problem trivial to fix, if you don’t mind making the rocket so heavy it can’t take off, otherwise, extremely problematic to mitigate.

    Of course, if it was easy, it’d not be rocket science, it’d just be plain aeronautical engineering. ;)

  55. Doug Little says

    In terms of questioning requirements I was not suggesting that we are in any way cutting corners on our obligation to the FAA or any other government agency that is required to protect the public and the public’s infrastructure. I was talking more from a design and manufacturing prospective, so no contracts breached.

    I obviously can’t give any specifics about the ongoing anomaly investigation but to answer your general questions about the engine. Each Raptor has two turbo pumps, one for fuel and the other for lox. Everyday Astronaut has a great primer on the Raptor and Starship btw if you are interested and from that you will be pretty much able to answer your other questions.

    Growing up one of my dreams was to work on something like Apollo but from the engineering / problem solving side, I always loved the movies and shows that would show the engineers doing their thing, failing, coming up with a new thing to try, failing again and then finally succeeding in the end, I missed the heavy dev period of Falcon so I didn’t get the full Falcon experience but I have been working on Raptor/Starship ever since bits started being made. We do mass produce the Raptor engine, at a rate similar to a high end super car, Really exciting stuff, I love it.

  56. StevoR says

    @ Doug Little : Respect and thanks from me to you and everyone at SpaceX who helps make Starship and the Falcons (& more) fly. I am of fan of what you do – although still cannot stand Musk. Cheering y’all on here. (Not you Musk.)

    Everyday Astronaut has a great primer on the Raptor and Starship btw if you are interested and from that you will be pretty much able to answer your other questions.

    is this the one you meant here? (1 hour 12minutes long.) There’s actually quite a lot of clips there so not quite sure which one tbut that’s recent and lengthy..

    @63. Raging Bee : I’m glad they didn’t given what we got to see and learn and expect everyone was surprised by the effects of it tho’ perhaps shouldn’t have been. It is a standard procedure as noted by the quote given by #62 SC (Salty Current) and I’m sure they’ll fix it before the next launch is cleared.

  57. StevoR says

    @ ^ Doug Little : Thanks for those . Belated but very much appreciated thanks.