You might think that a rocket exploding before it reaches orbit would be a bad thing.
That's what happened this week with SpaceX's Starship, which when it roared to life with its Super Heavy booster generated twice the amount of lift of the Saturn V, NASA's rocket that took the first-ever astronauts to the Moon over half a century ago.
But just under four minutes into the flight, the rocket started to veer off course. While still attached to its equally massive booster, the giant stainless steel structure started tumbling uncontrollably, triggering its autonomous flight termination system.
The result: a gigantic cloud of gas and debris as the most powerful rocket ever built tore itself into shreds and sent bits of rocket hurtling down, covering many miles of the surrounding Texas shoreline with particles.
To the layman watching the events unfold, it looked like a colossal failure: a rocket that fell far short of reaching its destination.
But to many others, the inaugural orbital launch attempt was a resounding success, proving that the company is on the right path to developing the most capable mode of space transportation ever made.
Unsurprisingly, SpaceX and its leadership framed the event as an important milestone.
"Learned a lot for next test launch in a few months," SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted following the test launch.
"With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and we learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems today that will help us improve on future flights of Starship," the company wrote in a statement.
It's far from the first Starship to have blown up mid-flight. Four full-sized iterations have exploded in spectacular fashion over the last couple of years.
The company has carved a very different path for itself, relying on sending a series of iterative designs to their death to develop its launch platform instead of leading up to one meticulously planned launch attempt like NASA.
In other words, by SpaceX's own measures of success, Thursday was a major step forward for the company.
And experts tend to agree.
"Some folks think Starship test launch was a failure because it ended with an abort shows a basic misunderstanding of purpose of a test flight," Poppy Northcutt, who worked at NASA on the Apollo missions in the 1960s, argued. "A test flight is meant to stress system in order to improve."
"To paraphrase Bill Gates — you learn more from failure than from success," she added.
"The challenge is handling situation when things go wrong," Northcutt continued. " Any idiot can handle things when all goes right. When there is a failure, you want an orderly failure. Good job here."
Others argued that blowing up on the launch pad would've been a huge setback for SpaceX, whereas at least making it into the air was a step in the right direction.
In fact, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell told reporters back in February that the "real goal is to not blow up the launch pad."
"Just for context because non-space people seem confused," tweeted science communicator and PBS host Swapna Krishna. "It of course would have been better if the rocket had not exploded but it’s not actually a big deal that it exploded."
"It may look that way to some people, but it’s not a failure," former NASA official Daniel Dumbacher, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, told the New York Times. "It’s a learning experience."
The stakes are incredibly high for the company. SpaceX's Starship could represent a revolutionary change in the field of space exploration, enabling us to step foot on the Moon, and eventually — if Musk is to be believed — establish entire cities on Mars.
Besides, there's already a precedent when it comes to reusable rocketry. The company's "fail fast, but learn faster" approach led to the development of the Falcon 9, a rocket that already has had a profound impact on space travel as we know it today.
Long story short, one big explosion 24 miles over the coast of Texas isn't going to be the end of Starship.
"They’ll look into it, they’ll figure it out, and they’ll come back the next time and they’ll fix those problems and they’ll move on to the next one end eventually they’ll get this flying all the way in orbit," Dumbacher told the NYT. "I’m fully confident of that."
More on the launch: It Turns Out SpaceX Blew Up Starship on Purpose
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