COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle, the world’s heaviest rocket, could be a game changer for the Space Force, even after its first attempt at a suborbital flight on April 20 ended in an explosion.
Despite the failure, service officials told C4ISRNET they’re hopeful about the rocket’s future and what the test flight means for the launch industry more broadly.
Col. Jim Horne, deputy director of operations for the Space Force’s Assured Access to Space directorate said when innovators like SpaceX, which is owned by billionaire Elon Musk, attempt groundbreaking technological advances, even an unsuccessful test is a chance to learn.
“I think that’s one of my favorite things that companies like them have done is teach us that we need to learn from our mistakes and not fear them,” he said during an April 20 interview at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Take acceptable risk, learn from it and move on. They’ve proven that you can accelerate innovation.”
Col. Mark Shoemaker, vice commander for operations at Space Launch Delta 45 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, said he views SpaceX’s Starship launch as an accomplishment.
“They will say they were successful, and I would agree,” he said in the same interview. “I’m sure they learned a lot from that.”
SpaceX planned for Starship, a 400-foot-fall rocket that can carry 150 tons to orbit, to fly to a suborbital altitude of 235 km above Earth in its debut mission. Four minutes into the flight, it began to tumble in the air after several of its engines failed. The Washington Post, citing a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration, reported that Starship’s Automated Flight Termination System, designed to disable a rocket that malfunctions in flight, destroyed the launch vehicle.
The Defense Department has been closely watching SpaceX’s work on Starship as it considers a future requirement for rapid cargo delivery.
In 2020, U.S. Transportation Command signed a cooperative research and development agreement with the company to gain insight into the rocket’s development. Two years later, the Air Force Research Laboratory awarded SpaceX more than $100 million to provide flight data from Starship launch attempts to support its Rocket Cargo effort, which is studying the feasibility of using rockets to carry personnel and cargo around the globe.
Whether SpaceX’s unsuccessful attempt will impact the Space Force’s goal to operationalize a Rocket Cargo capability by 2026 is unclear and will likely depend on the cause of the failure and how quickly the company recovers.
SpaceX has two more Starships on hand but hasn’t indicated when it will attempt another launch. John Insprucker, an engineer for the company, said during its live webcast that the flight achieved its objective to provide data the company can learn from.
“It is the first test flight of Starship, and the goal was to gather the data,” he said, adding that after the dust settles, SpaceX intends to “clear the pad and get ready to go again.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.