SpaceX shouldn’t be afraid to slow down
By Ben Iannotta|May 2023
We’re about to find out whether SpaceX can find a better balance between its present derring-do and the paralyzing caution it has bucked since its founding.
Last month’s Starship test flight blew concrete and bonding agents from the launch pad into neighborhoods and likely wetlands near the company’s Starbase in Boca Chica, Texas. Elon Musk, who doubles as CEO and chief engineer, tweeted that “we wrongly thought” based on test data that the pad would erode, not explode. Construction had begun on “a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount,” but it was not yet ready.
Going without this flame diverter was daring, given that Starship and its Super Heavy booster amounted to the most powerful rocket ever launched.
SpaceX might have thought the move would get the first Starship to space faster. Now the company could face regulatory delays from the “mishap investigation” FAA announced. Investigators might justifiably wonder what other miscalculations lurk. Regarding environmental and health impacts, nothing can be said for certain about those at this point, but it’s possible that an expensive cleanup effort could be required. Local community support could be jeopardized, as residents and small businesses question whether a double standard exists between the strict permitting and environmental rules that most follow and the seemingly looser rules for SpaceX.
SpaceX says it “learned a tremendous amount” from the failed attempt to send a Starship halfway around the world for a splashdown. One of those lessons could be that it’s better to build in environmental responsibility from the start. Another dirty liftoff or other mistake would tarnish an otherwise important step forward in the Starship program.
It’s worth remembering what’s at stake and not at stake in development of Starship. The design could trigger innovations that will help sustainability on Earth. In our April issue, we ran a feature article about the possibility of launching giant spacecraft on Starships to beam an endless supply of clean solar power home in the form of microwaves. [“Harvesting sunlight in space.”] Others have proposed mining metals from asteroids and bringing them home on Starships. The design could become a space analog to Musk’s Tesla electric cars: a catalyst for clean innovation.
But Starship is not the Manhattan Project. The fate of the free world does not depend on its rapid success. Regulators should take a closer look, and SpaceX should take the time required to get the next attempt right at home and in space.