Fail fast. Learn faster. That’s been SpaceX’s philosophy since the beginning and has led to countless innovations and milestones in spaceflight over the years. The “fail” side of the equation was prominently on display as the company’s largest rocket, Starship, finished its most recent test flight early and in a fiery fashion.
Four minutes after launch, the 40-story tall rocket exploded off the coast of Texas after several boosters failed mid-flight. The second stage of the vehicle also failed to separate before the ship’s built-in “flight termination system” caused it to self-destruct. It’s unclear if this mechanism was triggered automatically by the ship or by crew members on the ground.
Despite the massive explosion, spirits remain positive not only at SpaceX but also within NASA. The agency has signed $4 billion worth of contracts with the private spaceflight company as part of its Artemis project—which aims to send the first woman and person of color to the moon.
SpaceX certainly isn’t new to losing rockets during the testing process. The company regularly watches its vehicles explode on the launch pad or in mid-air as it tests new versions. That hasn’t stopped SpaceX from cementing its place among the largest private spaceflight firms in the world. It was valued at $137 billion during a January 2023 funding round.
What started as a pipe dream, the massive Starship rocket is increasingly becoming an important part of SpaceX’s plans. The company, known for its low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite launches and Starlink internet offering, aims to use the vehicle to deliver larger payloads into orbit.
NASA also views Starship as its path back to the moon. Though the massive ship has yet to carry a human crew, SpaceX has previously flown astronauts on its much smaller (and more tested) Falcon 9 rocket. As for Artemis, NASA projects a manned launch no sooner than November 2024, with a lunar landing happening sometime in 2025. At this time, it’s unclear if the latest Starship setback will delay the current timeline.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said following the test, “Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk because with great risk comes great reward.” While SpaceX has taken a cavalier approach to the testing process, not everyone is on the same page.
Just moments after the explosion, Elon Musk tweeted that SpaceX hopes to launch another Starship in a “few months.” That sentiment isn’t reflected by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has grounded all Starship flights for the foreseeable future.
In a statement, the agency said, “A return to flight of the Starship / Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA determining that any system, processes, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety.”
In the days since the test failure, reports have emerged claiming that SpaceX rushed not only the launch but also the preparation of its landing pad. During the launch, the ship’s 33 engines demolished the pad, sending large chunks of concrete flying into the air and landing as far as six miles away. It’s unclear whether the damage done to the launch pad contributed to the failure of six of the rocket’s engines during the test.
Thanks to SpaceX and other private spaceflight firms, the LEO satellite market is booming. Riding the coattails of this success is a segment of the chip industry focused on supplying these firms. SpaceX’s supply chain reportedly includes silicon from several Taiwanese companies, including Wistron NeWeb and Universal Microwave Technology (UMT), as well as Win Semiconductors and Tong Hsing Electronic.
Notably, UMT is a major supplier for other LEO satellite companies beyond SpaceX. While experts had projected a roughly 25% increase for its LEO segment, the latest Starship flop could hinder the market’s growth.
Fortunately, these appear to be short-term setbacks for everyone involved. The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has put a spotlight on the importance of satellite communication. Moreover, the continued growth of connected devices will further drive demand for LEO satellite solutions.
So, while this segment of the semiconductor industry’s growth may be tied to companies like SpaceX as the launch testing process continues, the future is bright. For those involved in spaceflight, failures like the recent Starship setback are indeed just a lesson learned along the way—so long as they are learned safely.