back to article Space-wrecks: Elon's prototype Moon ferry Starship blows its top during fuel tank test

The Mk1 prototype of Elon Musk's Starship suffered what we're betting SpaceX will call an "anomaly" during a fuel tank test today. Viewers of a internet live-stream of the test were able to make out the top of the tank protruding from the Starsh** stage as SpaceX filled the thing with fuel. There was the usual venting at first …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "anomaly"

    We get it. You hate Musk. Get over yourselves.

    1. John McCallum
      Devil

      Re: "anomaly"

      New to this place? they don't hate Musk they just think that he is too full of himself.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: "anomaly"

        And hope he doesn't blow his top....

        1. JJKing Silver badge
          Facepalm

          Re: "anomaly"

          And hope he doesn't blow his top....

          I imagine he gets blown quite often........lucky bastard!

      2. CrazyOldCatMan Silver badge

        Re: "anomaly"

        they don't hate Musk

        Well - they do - but only in the charmingly equal way that they hate everybody..

    2. Sorry that handle is already taken. Silver badge

      Re: "anomaly"

      There are plenty of things to be snarky about but the snark here does seem a bit out of place, considering everyone in the rocket business calls a departure from nominal performance, no matter how far, an "anomaly".

      1. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Re: "anomaly"

        It wasn't an "anomaly", it was a "novel exothermic excursion".

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "anomaly"

          Which resulted in a partial unplanned disassembly.

          1. Stoneshop Silver badge

            Re: "anomaly"

            partial unplanned disassembly.

            due lamentable exothermics (puddle).

        2. Brangdon

          Re: novel exothermic excursion

          It probably wasn't exothermic. They were loading liquid nitrogen to test pressurisation. The pressure got too high and a weld failed. There was no flame, and no chemical reaction; it was more like a balloon bursting. The cold nitrogen condensed water vapour from the air.

          That's one reason to call it an anomaly rather than an explosion. "Explosion" would be misleading as to what happened.

      2. Stoneshop Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: "anomaly"

        considering everyone in the rocket business calls a departure from nominal performance, no matter how far, an "anomaly".

        John 'Ignition' Clark at least called an explosion an explosion.

        1. phuzz Silver badge
          Mushroom

          Re: "anomaly"

          Sometimes he did, but occasionally he used more interesting phrasing like "catastrophes looking for a place to happen" or "the whole thing goes up in a magnificent whoosh or bang", or "and then the whole shebang detonates, with absolutely shattering violence."

          1. Stoneshop Silver badge
            Mushroom

            Re: "anomaly"

            Also, phrases like "Somehow he managed to do it without killing himself." and "They usually detonated on contact with the oxidizer, as several possessors of piles of junk that had originally been

            ignition delay equipment could testify, and did." add a certain ... zest to an already powerful story.

        2. mr.K
          Mushroom

          Re: "anomaly"

          Maybe he did, but he also keeps referring to "hard starts" etc.

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: "anomaly"

            A "hard start" is a particular form of bang.

        3. Steve K Silver badge

          Re: "anomaly"

          Finally "Ignition" has been reprinted if you didn't already know:

          https://smile.amazon.co.uk/dp/0813595835/

          Steve

      3. Ima Ballsy
        Facepalm

        Re: "anomaly"

        That's what SHE said ....

    3. bombastic bob Silver badge
      Devil

      Re: "anomaly"

      well, any animosity aside, a catastrophic fail in the test phase is part of the process. It's just that SpaceX can't do this without people seeing it and laughing a bit.

      Who out there has NEVER let the blue smoke out of a component? I most recently had that happen to me when someone handed me a 12V power supply that REALLY turned out to be a 24V power supply, with the same connector, and I plugged it in without reading the @#$% label... blue smoke and arcs and OH CRAP and I repaired the board but the fried regulator managed to take the CPU with it...

      (fortunately the CPU was TQFP, unfortunately had trouble soldering it with $CLIENT's tools, nearly had to bring it home to fix it, then managed to blob-and-wick some solder onto a questionable-looking CPU pin, then all good)

      1. Arthur the cat Silver badge

        Re: "anomaly"

        well, any animosity aside, a catastrophic fail in the test phase is part of the process. It's just that SpaceX can't do this without people seeing it and laughing a bit.

        And SpaceX is still doing better than Virgin Galactic.

  2. Ian Johnston

    I'm sure that Hank and the boys down a Swift Industries in Shopton will have another prototype ready for tomorrow. Or was Arv the prototype builder? Either way, Elon and Bud are off for a double date at the yacht club ... but a Brungarian agent is following them!

    1. davetalis

      Watch out, Tom may be about with his Electric Rifle!

  3. herman Silver badge
    Devil

    Almost there

    A hop of 150 meters is a good start. Only 384 million more to go.

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  6. werdsmith Silver badge

    There was a problem exposed by a test.

    This is why we test.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      And if you are TSB, you go-live anyway...

      1. TonyJ Silver badge

        "...And if you are TSB, you go-live anyway..."

        Wait...! You think TSB did testing??

        1. Grooke

          How else would they have know the tests had over 2000 errors?

      2. Dr. G. Freeman

        TSB Test, Sometimes Barely.

    2. Roger Greenwood
      Coat

      Sometimes a test is done to find the weak spot and where the effort should be going. This may not have been their intention, but I bet they learnt a lot.

      I've been told many times that any fool can make kit unbreakable, but if you don't break something then it was overengineered :-)

      Yes the lab coat please with the copy of "Ignition!" in the pocket.

      1. Stoneshop Silver badge

        Sometimes a test is done to find the weak spot and where the effort should be going.

        And sometimes you actually want a weak spot, but you find that it is somewhere you don't want it.

        Like HPN adding stiffening braces to the BMW R80GS and R100GS frames, but finding that now the frames were breaking instead of the (original) welds. Fix was to pre-weaken the braces.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Sometimes a test is done to find the weak spot and where the effort should be going.

          "Like HPN adding stiffening braces to the BMW R80GS and R100GS frames, but finding that now the frames were breaking instead of the (original) welds. Fix was to pre-weaken the braces."

          In WW1 a German fighter plane was breaking its wings. The main structural beam was strengthened - and it still broke. After several iterations someone applied some science. The beam needed to be weaker - presumably so it would flex. The book "Structures: Or Why Things Don't Fall Down" may be the one I recall explaining how engineers and architects have made mistakes.

          The book has a nice quote in its preface.

          Among the innumerable mortifications that way-lay human arrogance on every side may well be reckoned our ignorance of the most common objects and effects, a defect of which we become more sensible by every attempt to supply it. Vulgar and inactive minds confound familiaritv with knowledge, and conceive themselves informed of the whole nature of things when they are shown their form or told their use; but the Speculatist, who is not content with superficial views, harrasses himself with fruitless curiosity, and still as he enquires more perceives only that he knows less.

          [...]

          "The Idler is naturally censorious; those who attempt nothing themselves, think every thing easily performed, and consider the unsuccessful always as criminal."

          Samuel Johnson 1758

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
      Mushroom

      "There was a problem exposed by a test.

      This is why we test."

      And in the BBC version of the report, SpaceX say they were testing "to the max" and that the result was "not entirely unexpected".

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        SpaceX say they were testing "to the max" and that the result was "not entirely unexpected".

        good point. back in the day we called this sort of thing 'hydrostatic testing'. Normally weren't expecting it to blow up but just in case, better during the test than during operations. So you pressurize with water and run it up to maximum expected levels. In the case of a catastrophic fail, something cracks and pressure drops significantly due to it being water.

        In THEIR case, however, they had to use fuel, probably due to cryogenic temperatures. At cold temperatures of cryo-fuels (like LOX) metals become EXTREMELY brittle. And if their fracture toughness isn't quite right, you end up with, uh, an "anomoly".

        For all we know, it was the welding process or something like it, that was responsible. It can happen. In WW2 a liberty ship broke in half during construction due to bad welds and brittle fracture.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Along similar lines on the behaviour of metal when welding, the story of Salesforce Transit Centre in SF:

          https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/a29329189/salesforce-transit-center-cracks/

          TL;DR: opening of new building delayed after structural cracks found in two beams. Entire structure checked and no further issues found - cause was incorrect post-weld treatment resulting in micro-cracks that resulted in brittle cracking when placed under load.

        2. MachDiamond Silver badge

          "At cold temperatures of cryo-fuels (like LOX) metals become EXTREMELY brittle"

          Some alloys are stronger at cryogenic temps.

          The usual process is to test multiple samples. Some will be tested to destruction by pressurizing them with water until they fail and further tanks tested to 1.5x or so of nominal working pressure as part of the qualification for use. "Maximum working pressure" is a bit of a misnomer. That maximum is the expected working pressure. If it fails at that pressure, there is zero safety margin.

          Somewhere I have the photos of the burst tanks we did at work to test a new design. We had some issues with welding on the proof tanks, but got it all sorted before ever filling up with LOx and Helium (we used a pressure fed system on the small rockets rather than a turbopump).

          To have an anomaly like SX did is not a good sign. If anything, the test article should have been beefier than needed. Most aerospace stuff is like that. You overbuild the test article and then refine down rather than shaving stuff down on the first go and seeing what blows up and then bulking it up a bit to see if that helps. Is it the FEA software that all the new kids have complete faith in? You know, those fresh out of college engineers that have never actually built something with real materials shaped by the lowest bidder according to some idealized computer model. It's like learning electronics at university with "ideal" opamps, transistors and capacitors. In my ME courses we started by ignoring weld inconsistencies and assumed the weld was just as good as having contiguous base metal. Good luck with that on designs with critical joins.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "It can happen. In WW2 a liberty ship broke in half during construction due to bad welds and brittle fracture."

          Many of the early Liberty ships sank due to a structural failure. The problem was that the cargo hatches had sharp right angle corners which concentrated fracture stresses. The solution was to round the corners.

          Surprisingly a few years later - the first Comet passenger jet planes disintegrated from the same design error by having square windows.

    4. Aqua Marina

      We don't need no steenkin tests!

      This is probably one of the most annoying things about the internet. 30 years ago this kind of testing would have been done without anyone in the world knowing about it, and unless someone was killed, people would be presented months or years later with the finished product.

      Now everything is streamed to the internet. Joe Public and headline seeking journalists then froth at the mouth screaming down the intertubes how unsafe Product-X is. This then goes viral, and suddenly every self qualified expert commentard offers their factual opinion, resulting in everyone "knowing" that Company-X produces unsafe products. Company-X then goes bust as investors pull out because of a bad reputation.

      I'm currently working on a marine project at the moment where destructive testing is considered a good thing, and even more so when it's unexpected, but still within the testing period. Contrary to what expertards believe, science and engineering do not know everything, which is why we test. Best the engineers discover then mitigate issues during production, and not when the ship is sinking.

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: We don't need no steenkin tests!

        "30 years ago this kind of testing would have been done without anyone in the world knowing about it, and unless someone was killed, people would be presented months or years later with the finished product."

        30 years ago, the tank design would have gone through physical tests rather than just FEA sims on a computer. It wouldn't have blow while being tested at it's working pressure but only if something were to have gone very wrong.

        If you are going to make your testing live and public, it's a good idea to spend the time to do things properly. Yes, it takes time and costs money but so does repairing test facilities and metaphorically cleaning the egg from your face.

  7. Wobbly World

    W0oop’s

    You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.!!!

    Better roll another big fat spliff.!! Arr that’s better nothing like a good enigmatical Moon Starship smoker!!!

  8. Bronek Kozicki Silver badge
    Boffin

    Best tradition of chaos ingineering

    Things go wrong, and yet the whole edifice still stands upright, with the most important parts (rocket engines!) seemingly intact.

    1. Wellyboot Silver badge

      Re: Best tradition of chaos ingineering

      The most important part IMHO is where they put the seats, I don't think I'd want to have been there!

      You're right though, it is impressive that anything was left recognizable :)

      1. HamsterNet

        Re: Best tradition of chaos ingineering

        Why would you be anywhere near a Prototype?

        Its a prototype made to learn what works and what doesn't. Clearly, something on the top tank bulkhead doesnt work.

        1. Wellyboot Silver badge

          Re: Best tradition of chaos ingineering

          I'm with you there, wouldn't want to be near any rocket during fuelling, It's probably the most dangerous event apart from ignition during the whole launch cycle.

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: Best tradition of chaos ingineering

            "I'm with you there, wouldn't want to be near any rocket during fuelling, It's probably the most dangerous event apart from ignition during the whole launch cycle.

            "

            In other stories, NASA is not happy with SpaceX wanting to have astronauts in the capsule while the the rocket is being fueled on the pad. SpaceX claims that waiting until after fueling is complete allows the system to warm up and doesn't let them get the fuel density as high as they need.

            SOP for Crew Dragon will be to fit the astronauts into the capsule AND THEN start fueling. Should just call them organic payload. I can't see how they will be able to do anything with the rocket engines lit on a touch display.

            Look closely at all of the crewed NASA vehicles and you will see that there are physical switches with guards and places to anchor the hand. They learned early on that the vibration was too much for astronauts to accurately actuate controls and lots of opportunity to flip the wrong switch by accident.

            1. Brangdon

              Re: Best tradition of chaos ingineering

              The counter-argument is that even approaching a fuelled rocket is dangerous. It wouldn't be allowed for an uncrewed launch, for example. So loading the astronauts into a ready-fuelled rocket presents a danger both to the astronauts and to the ground crew who help them into the rocket. They are all very exposed as they are wandering around the pad. If you load the astronauts first, by the time you start fuelling the ground crew are well away, and the astronauts themselves are largely protected by the Dragon 2 and its launch abort capability.

              As for the Dragon 2 touch screens, those are mostly informational during launch. SpaceX vehicles are autonomous. They don't have human pilots controlling them.

  9. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Unhappy

    Well, what did you think "Build fast, fail fast" meant?

    Seriously.

    Musk's optimism for timescales is pretty notorious (recall the 2011 video showing the F9 US landing? Great CGI)

    So they learned something they shouldn't do next time.

    I'm pretty sure SS is going to go through at least a couple more iterations in design before this thing flies to orbit.

    I'm also pretty sure it will happen barring Musk keeling over.

    I'm just not sure when.

  10. Pete 2

    sweet dreams

    > There was the usual venting at first, from overspill, and then... kablooey.

    OK, which joker dropped a Mentos into the tank?

  11. Chris G Silver badge

    Learning curve

    Slightly carbonised techy: "Uuhhmm dude! Maybe we should skip the spliff next time we're filling the tanks?"

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Learning curve

      Looking at the video, it was a rapid, catastrophic venting, there was no ignition.

    2. Tikimon Silver badge
      Angel

      Re: Learning curve

      "Slightly carbonised techy: "Uuhhmm dude! Maybe we should skip the spliff next time we're filling the tanks?""

      Sixty seconds previously: "BRING ME DA HEAT, MON! BRING ME SOME HEEEEAT!"

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Test, test, test - nothing wrong with that. Boeing could probably learn a lesson or two here.

    Just sayin'

  13. baud Bronze badge

    At least it wasn't as bad as their last launch pad incident, which ended up with a rapid and unplanned deconstruction of their rocket due to a uncontrolled runaway exothermic chemical reaction

  14. M7S
    Coat

    Later starships will not be as good

    As clearly, in this instance, the engines were the one part that took it very well.

    The red shirt, thank you

  15. Guido Brunetti
    Holmes

    A (not official) source said that a communication problem between pumps and sensors led to a massive overpressurization. So the tank/hull construction likely wasn't at fault.

  16. rg287 Silver badge

    Not entirely unexpected. Mk 1 has been hastily fabbed up and was already entirely obsolete. For instance, it was fabricated from panels of stainless because that's what they could get. The Mk 2 (in Florida) and Mk 3 (in Texas with the Mk1) are fabricated from rings of steel straight off a roll - far fewer welds, far less complex assembly.

    In normal SpaceX style they're iterating quickly and finding problems early and fast - compared to the more traditional direction Blue Origin have taken of spending 19years trying to design the perfect rocket before cutting steel.

    Might delay the first flight of a Starship prototype (which will now be a Mk2 or Mk3!) but it's unlikely to put much of a hold on the project overall.

    1. MachDiamond Silver badge

      "For instance, it was fabricated from panels of stainless because that's what they could get."

      No, that was the plan from the start. Elon believes that SS is the best material for the application.

  17. steelpillow Silver badge
    Happy

    Battered rocket

    Judging by the photo, the wrecked rocket (wrecket?) looks so cool it will be snapped up as a prop for the next Star Wars film*

    * Unless the Trek franchise gets there first of course.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Battered rocket

      Um, there is no "next" Star Wars film - well according to Disney, anyway

      1. D@v3

        Re: "Star Wars" films

        My understanding is that is true, in as much as Rogue One and Solo were not "Star Wars" films.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Blow your top...

    "The fact the cylinder of the booster itself remained intact indicates to our untrained eye that the failure likely sent the top of the bulkhead skywards"

    I can answer that for you...

    https://youtu.be/3nTSubYzQOM?t=18

    1. Stoneshop Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: Blow your top...

      The camera was set up to record one frame every millisecond. When the nuke blew, the lid was caught in the first frame and then disappeared from view. Judging from the yield and the pressure, Dr Brownlee estimated that it left the ground at more than 60 kilometres per second, or more than five times the escape velocity of our planet.

  19. TheProf
    Joke

    Planning ahead

    Obviously a planned shedding of weight before launch to save Mark Watney the trouble afterwards.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    New Tagline for SpaceX

    "Stay stationary and break things"

  21. Benchops

    Come on,

    it's not as if this is rocket sci... oh wait.

    1. Baldrickk Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: Come on,

      It's not even that hard... I build rockets all the time in KSP

  22. Will Godfrey Silver badge
    Coat

    Gives a whole new meaning to

    ... put a rocket up his arse.

  23. Mark 85 Silver badge

    Ah, tech terms...

    >and then... kablooey

    Love it.

  24. frankvw
    Pint

    This is what tests are for

    It's called rocket science for a reason.

    As I recall, the US Air Force in the 1950s had a good number of spectacular launch failures while developing rockets before they managed to get one off the pad in once piece. (Not counting the German NAZI rockets they'd carted out of Peenemunde in '45, of course.) If it hadn't been for the cold war and the need to get spy sats over Russia the boffins probably never would have stuck with it. And later rocketry wasn't without its problems, either. Think Apollo 1 and two lost Space Shuttles... Or the Russian space program's encounters with failed descent parachutes, explosive decompression and goodly number of explosions on the pad as well. So I'm all for testing the heck out of everything, and I'm not even expecting to ever fly in one of these things.

    This is how technology gets developed. You do the best you know how; you test; you fail; you change what you borked and you test again. If everyone knew how to get it 100% right the first time... Well, where's the fun in that?

    So here's a pint raised to the guys who test stuff!

  25. duhmb

    Ahem....

    I think we have to accept by now that the proven experts live on Elon's side of the reporting fence :-)

  26. aqk
    Alert

    StainlessSteel is the future?

    Or was the top of this stainless steel cylinder actually constructed out of sturdy laminated chicken-fat?

    Note that Elon's new Cyber Truck will also be made of this new Stainless Musksteel.

    GUTS! GLORY! RAMEN!

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