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S/crappy - [special edition]
There's a fine line between scrappy and crappy. Which side is Starship on?
Disclaimer ~*~plz read~*~
Welcome to a Special Edition of the Next 30 Trips! I don’t want this newsletter to turn into commentary on the New Space industry (other than sharing the many lessons it provides) but the first flight of SpaceX’s Super Heavy and Starship stack provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the current state of the New Space race.
After spending over a decade in this industry building launch, test, and landing sites for many companies, including SpaceX, I feel like I have a unique perspective on the current state of things, and how that flight is actually perceived inside the company.
I want to make clear that I am not picking on SpaceX here. If you read it that way, take a deep breath, check yourself, and put down all the water you’ve been carrying for billionaires. I am a huge fan of all the developments in New Space. Hell, my company works on helping rocket companies launch faster and safer! We’re even working on a project that interfaces with Starship.
I also remember what it was like watching rockets blow up on the pad or out on the barge and then reading the galaxy-brain takes of people saying we were washed up and going to fail. This ain’t that! So, Elon stans don’t bother diving in front of Apu here.
Since I don’t want to write about this topic often or, really, ever again1, I’m going to cover *everything* here, once, to give proper context on what this means within the current space climate. So, this is a long one. Buckle up.
Scrappy vs. Crappy
I always say that there’s a fine line between scrappy and crappy. For those outside our industry, “scrappy” is a term that’s thrown around a lot. Essentially, it’s about doing more with less and making miracles from nothing. In other words, making chicken salad out of chicken shit. But it’s a badge of pride in our industry where doing things as fast and as cheap as possible is often the goal.
I could fill a book with examples of people choosing the wrong side of the scrappy / crappy divide. Clients that have us design and build test stands in record time, then let them sit idle for months because their schedule was fiction. Clients that tear down existing towers on their launch sites only to build a tower later. Engines blowing up on the test stand because someone left a shop rag in a tube after cleaning it. Or teams that go do shit like this and almost kill people.2
Maybe the best example (that I can talk about without getting in trouble) are the wing extensions on the first version of the landing barge “Just Read the Instructions” highlighted in red below.
A few weeks before the barge was slated to go out on its first mission, our little Recovery team got a panicked phone call from headquarters saying they were worried that the barge wasn’t big enough for the rocket to land on. This was concerning, since millions of dollars had gone into the original widening of the barge based on their math. With no time (and no additional money3) we designed something that would technically work, but which in reality looked and functioned like shit. A paltry extra ten feet of reach was added on each side, spanning about 50 feet along the barge. As the missions went by, they rusted and dented up until we finally just cut them off and turned them into blast shielding.
So, trust me - I have, unfortunately, been on both sides of the "s/crappy" equation!
The Super Heavy + Starship Flight
Lavie Ohana (who has a great Twitter feed) wrote an excellent first-hand perspective of being on the scene for last week’s launch. Read that here. I think that she hits on some really important points and it’s important to go through it in full, but this quote sums up the takeaway pretty well:
I think in almost all of my shots, there’s something visibly wrong with Starship. Whether it’s the tanks venting fuel overboard constantly, or more engines flaming out, or power units failing, the rocket was on the verge of failure for the entire flight. Honestly, I’m extremely impressed it made it as far as it did.
These observations were echoed by absolutely everyone I spoke to from SpaceX employees both current and former, as well as those in leadership around the industry. I was working on a complete run down of every anomaly as it went up, but then someone just helpfully tweeted it out!4 I can’t embed tweets here anymore because Elon's social network is mad at Substack, so I'm going to embed an image and link to the original tweet in the caption.5
That’s a lot of anomalies for a first flight. I’m impressed the vehicle held on as long as it did. Also, I get that it’s the first flight of a brand-new rocket, but so was Relativity’s first flight about a month ago which didn’t get to orbit, but at least separated the stages and lost no first stage engines.6 Pretty good for a brand-new team with a brand-new rocket using brand-new manufacturing techniques in 3D printing.
“Ok, sure,” you’re thinking, “but that’s a small rocket!”
“But this is even bigger!” you might exclaim, “and way more complex with its 33 engines!”
First of all, talking up the complexity of a rocket is not the flex some people think it is. Rockets should get simpler, whenever possible. As Einstein said, “The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple.”
Second, since this *is* the largest, and by far most complex, rocket to ever attempt to launch, shouldn’t time be spent on making sure it’s as ready as possible? Dozens of iterations of development were completed on Starship, starting all the way back with Starhopper and a ton was learned!
This is the kind of iterative testing that SpaceX excels at, and which (frankly) fuckin’ rocks. I was inside the company during the Grasshopper development that led to the first landings of Falcon 9, and it’s amazing to see what can be accomplished by this fast-moving iterative testing. It feels like watching the future come true before your eyes, and it honors the reality of the insanely hard work that goes into these huge engineering leaps.
→ So, why the hell didn’t that same testing happen with the Super Heavy stage?
I have no idea. The last static fire they conducted before launch didn’t even fire all the engines! Only 31 of the 33 engines were tested during that static fire. In fact, they never tested the full set of engines all together. That’s not testing like you fly. That’s not running a comprehensive test program.
Honestly, it’s a little confusing. Part of me wonders if the success of the Falcon 9 program and the Falcon Heavy program caused them to take the booster portion for granted. I know they’ve seen the old N1 launch videos, which is the most similar rocket with its thirty NK-15 engines.
That’s a huge control challenge! It seems like more testing would have behooved the vehicle, rather than deciding to go full send it mode on 4/20.
And that’s just the rocket.
The launch site fared, in a lot of ways, even worse.
I am no stranger to damage on launch pads, but the only times I’ve seen damage of this caliber after a launch are when a rocket blows up on the pad, or takes off and (unfortunately) flames out and comes back down to explode.8 Let me be clear that I have never seen massive damage like this occur because a rocket took off like it should. Generally, you’ll get some damage on the ground, even after a successful launch. That damage is usually small - things like hoses, small bits of blast shielding, or other items not protected by the water system.
Here, the heat flux and propulsive force of the world’s largest rocket destroyed the concrete flat pad (that used no cooling water) which in turn took out a number of engines before lift off, some ground tanks, the launch mount, and more. Elon was clear that the decision to fly in that configuration with no water or diverter was his call, and in this case it almost destroyed the pad, accelerated the rocket’s failure, and led to the program being grounded pending FAA review.
Like a lot of programs trying to get to orbit, the next steps are picking up the pieces, reviewing the data, and figuring out how to try again. Elon is saying they will be ready to go in 1 - 2 months, which is simply not going to happen. Fixing the pad alone will be extremely challenging, but it is likely the easy part here. The fix will require complete repouring of the foundation around the launch mount, installation of some kind of cooled-plate to prevent this from happening again, as well as likely refurbishment of the damaged ground tanks.9 That's at least what I can tell from pictures, I'm sure there's more.
The hard part will be passing FAA review to get airborne again. That was just announced today, so more to come there. The nigh impossible part might be convincing NASA to let them launch from LC-39A, the historic Apollo and Space Shuttle spaceport, that SpaceX has been successfully launching from for the last five years or so.
This pad is the crown jewel of SpaceX’s facilities, and in many ways the crown jewel of all launch pads. It sent humans to the moon through the Apollo program, and it hosted many critical missions through Shuttle. It was an honor to work out there during my time at SpaceX as an employee and service provider, and I know everyone on that pad feels the same way.
Moreover, it is the only pad that SpaceX can launch astronauts from to service their ISS Crew contract which was just extended and is worth billions of dollars. It is also the only pad that they can launch Falcon Heavy from, which fanbois will tell you doesn’t matter once Starship is running, but it matters a lot until that point.
After this flight at Starbase, is the FAA or NASA going to allow Super Heavy and Starship to launch here, where a mistake could wipe out billions in taxpayer-funded infrastructure while also crippling the only way to send astronauts to space from US soil? I don’t think so.
The Double Standard of Space Industry Coverage
I want to take a brief aside by talking about the way SpaceX is characterized online and in the media. Elon would have you believe they are often vilified by unfair journalists, but that really couldn’t be farther from the truth.
However, I am old enough to remember when SpaceX wasn’t the favorite son of the US space program and there was actually some truth to that lament. In fact, I remember well how lobbyists, members of the media, and the engineers at ULA one launch pad over from my pad at Vandenberg all mocked us in the early days of Falcon 9. They told us we were dumb kids, that we didn’t know what we were doing, and that we were going to fuck it up. They were mostly right, at various times, if I’m honest. It took a minute, but we eventually figured things out.
Something changed, though, around the time we started landing Falcon 9 first stages. Suddenly, we weren’t the underdogs anymore; we were the leaders. That change felt odd, and I remember it happening in real time. People in airports started commenting on my company hat or t-shirt when I traveled, friends back home with no interest in space started reaching out online, and the online discourse around the private space race moved out of the dark corners of Reddit and the NASA Spaceflight Forums onto Twitter and YouTube.
Instead of not being able to do anything right, it seemed like we couldn’t do anything wrong. Rockets launched faster than any other point in human history, then they came back and landed on our barge. After that, they started landing on land. Somewhere in there, Falcon Heavy flew for the first time and also landed all three first stage cores.
By that point, I’d transitioned to running my own company, helping other space companies around the country figure out their own launch and test woes. As the number of articles, books, videos, and personalities trying to make a living talking about SpaceX online10 multiplied, I noticed that a weird, decidedly male, crypto-adjacent faction11 started to form.
The issue is that instead of everyone rooting on other teams, they started to actively root against them because they saw them as competition for SpaceX. The Space Launch System is the biggest target of this ire, and it has plenty of things we should be critical of as it was chronically behind schedule and overbudget.
More worrying, though, are the people punching down at the small teams trying to get their rockets off the ground. That attitude will kill innovation in this field faster than anything else. We should be rooting for these other companies and efforts to succeed, if we ever hope to actually open up space to humanity for peaceful purposes.
But this cuts the other way too. We should be objectively critical of SpaceX when they goof up.
A great example of a test that was widely and rightly derided was one by Pythom Space. You can check out the writeup here, but essentially, they went and tried to do an extremely dangerous hover test with no safety plan in place and people way too close to the vehicle, all while using extremely toxic hypergolic propellant. It was a mess and it should be called out as such, so that other teams don’t cut corners and young engineers with little experience learn what *not* to do.
To be blunt, I see a lot more similarity between this test and the Super Heavy launch than I’d like to. Both were ill-considered, dangerous, destructive, and would’ve benefitted from some real soul searching about why the test was done as well as how it should be done safely. Both of these tests had the air of a circus and a “lol fuck it send it” mentality.
I want to highlight this because the coverage of both tests could not be more different. SpaceX was able to spin theirs as a heroic test of a challenging system, knowing that failure was an option. My belief, admittedly watching from the outside, is that anyone working that test that was honest with themselves would have said the failure was a certainty.
This is a dangerous industry. It’s important that we strive to conduct safe, well-considered tests knowing that things can go wrong, while minimizing the impact. I fear that by celebrating this test and spinning it as necessary progress, we may do more long-term harm than good to the space program and our approach to innovation in this country.
Ok, So Was This a Success?
Based on the cheering SpaceX crowd mic’d up at Hawthorne HQ, you might believe that this test was a rousing success. They cleared the launch tower, which was the stated goal. Of course, they also wiped out the launch tower’s base in the process, so not sure how to score that one, if I’m honest.
But frankly those folks aren’t the ones that count. Go back and watch the video of the launch and look at the faces of the people at work - the people in the control room. They aren’t cheering.
I remember when were still pasting the barge with rockets back in the day as we tried to figure out how to land them, I got called to HQ for some meetings. I flew from Florida to LA and walked up to the third floor of Hawthorne. I was wandering through the cube farm in my shit kickers, oil stained hoodie, and torn jeans when I saw a group of people painting a huge mural on a back wall. It was of the barge with a rocket landing.
To be clear, we’d never landed any rockets (at least none that stayed in one piece). At that time I was working seven days a week, barely sleeping a few hours a night, and trying to rebuild the barge between failed landing attempts a couple hundred miles out at sea. The point is, the further someone is from the action, the less you should trust their excitement about a mission’s relative success. So just because someone sprayed people down with champagne after this Starship flight, as was widely reported, that doesn’t mean it was much of a success.
I don’t think this was a success, by any measure. Nuking the launch site, losing a high percentage of the engines on a relatively short ascent, failing to even separate the stages during stage separation, and then being grounded by the FAA for a full investigation (the deleterious effects on wildlife and human health are unknown) cannot be judged as a success by any measure.
Worse, their newest contract with NASA stipulates landing humans on the Moon by 2024, which is next year. Keep in mind, that Starship has nothing inside of it except the tanks, valves, and wires needed to make it fly. There is no payload bay. There are no seats. There is no life support system. We don’t know if the re-entry tiles will work. Honestly, if this was any company other than SpaceX I would declare them toast. Companies have folded over much less, especially in this industry.
And yet, while I don’t think that this test was a success, that doesn’t mean that I think the program as a whole is a failure. Right now, SLS is ahead which is something that would have been inconceivable to anyone in industry even six months ago. But it flew Orion, a functioning capsule capable of sustaining human life, around the Moon. Who knows if it will stay ahead. SpaceX is a resilient company and I’ve seen (and been a part of) many miracles there in the past.
So, while in my opinion this test was firmly on the crappy side of the “s/crappy” divide, that doesn’t doom them to remain there. The exciting part for all of us is seeing if they still have that extra gear they can shift into to catch up, pull ahead, and turn this into the machine that it can be. I know what it’s like to be in that position, as an engineer, and I’m rooting for those good people who do the real work with all my energy.
Until then, though, it would behoove the rest of us to judge everyone’s declarations of success equally, fairly, and with a critical eye.
This is a newsletter about taking different approaches to challenging problem solving and reframing purpose. A lot of content directly reacts against the mindset and approach venture backed companies take to innovation.
Note: they are *not* clients of ours, good lord.
Trust me. We asked and they said “NO!” - classic!
I’m sorry, I know it’s dumb. It’s not my fault.
I got some feedback that this isn’t fully true and there were more complications than were obvious on the surface, but it at least the failures weren’t readily apparent as with Starship.
Oddly, I cannot find the video of Astra doing this (twice) which makes me wonder if they had the videos taken down 🤔
SpaceX will probably try to get out of this, since they didn’t rupture, on the grounds that this is a test site. I wonder if FAA has any jurisdiction on that portion of the program. Keep an eye on this.
The number of weirdos making YouTube videos about SpaceX, while having no idea what they are talking about, is probably the strongest indicator of the longtail clickbait potential of jumping on the bandwagon.
See also: anyone buying a blue check on Twitter.