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Elon Musk Calls World’s Heaviest Rocket Too Light To Reach Orbit

NASA has already delayed its Artemis II and III mission schedule due to several technical challenges. Among them SpaceX’s Starship is one probable cause. The colossal flagship rocket from Elon Musk’s space firm that aims to take humans to Mars and beyond, soared to the edge of space in its second integrated test flight in mid-November. The launch from Boca Chica, Texas, was flawless, unlike the first attempt that saw the rocket crash into the launch tower. The Starship successfully separated from the Super Heavy booster, the first stage that provides the initial thrust, and crossed the Kármán line, the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space.

A bittersweet success

However, the historic flight had its challenges. The Starship and the Super Heavy booster exploded in mid-air shortly after the stage separation, creating spectacular fireballs that lit up the sky. The cause of the mishaps was unclear, and many speculated that the flight termination system, a safety mechanism that destroys the rocket if it deviates from the planned trajectory, was triggered.

Two months later, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk finally shed some light on what happened during a company update presentation at Starbase, the launch site and production facility for Starship. He revealed that the world’s heaviest rocket was too light to reach orbit.

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“Flight 2 actually almost made it to orbit. In fact, ironically, if it had a payload it would have made it to orbit. Because the reason that it actually didn’t quite make it to orbit was we vented the oxygen, and liquid oxygen ultimately led to fire and an explosion. Because we wanted to vent the liquid oxygen because we normally wouldn’t have that liquid oxygen if we had payload. So, ironically, if it had a payload it would have reached orbit,” Musk said.

He also said the exact reason for the Super Heavy booster’s failure during the boost back burn, a maneuver that flips the rocket and slows it down for landing, was still unknown.

Time over hardware

Musk, however, was still being determined by the loss of hardware and said that he was willing to sacrifice more rockets if it meant that Starship would be operational sooner. “It is always better to sacrifice hardware than sacrifice time. Like, time is the one true currency,” he said.

He also outlined the new goals for the third integrated test flight, scheduled for February, pending approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These include performing an in-space engine burn from a header tank, a smaller propellant tank that feeds the engines during landing, and safely deorbiting the spacecraft.

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SpaceX also plans to test the propellant transfer technology, which would allow Starship to refuel in orbit, and the payload door and mechanism for deploying its Starlink satellites, the constellation of internet-providing satellites that would also serve as a source of revenue for the company.

Starship is the ambitious project that Musk hopes will revolutionize space exploration and colonization.

The reusable rocket, which stands 120 meters tall and can carry up to 100 tons of cargo and 100 passengers, is designed to launch from Earth, land on the Moon or Mars, and return to Earth. SpaceX has already secured contracts with NASA to use Starship for lunar missions, and Musk has said that he wants to send the first crewed mission to Mars in 2026.

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