SpaceX reportedly dodged Starship accident during full stack test, Starlink chief now leading project

According to a report from The Information, SpaceX could be pushing its Starship production too fast, with safety concerns reported by employees during a recent full stack test. All this under the eyes of Starlink’s chief, now unofficially running the program.

SpaceX employees share Starship ‘nearly came crashing down’

In mid-October, SpaceX conducted a full stacking of its Starship Super Heavy rocket. This is when the Super Heavy booster is placed on the orbital launch mount, and then the Starship upper stage is set on top, using either a crane or the “chopsticks” on the launch tower. These tests have always excited the spaceflight community to see just how tall the Starship rocket is.

As someone who has stood underneath a fully stacked Starship, I agree it’s a mind-numbing experience. Starship, once operational, will become the tallest and most powerful rocket on Earth.

However, during a test two weeks ago where gas was vented from Starship, the pressure dropped inside the rocket. If the pressure inside Starship went below the ambient pressure outside, it could have crumpled in on itself and collapsed. SpaceX employees told The Information that the rocket at the time was filled with liquid oxygen, the temperature of that propellant being at least -297 degrees Fahrenheit. The deadly aspect included roughly two dozen crew members still on the pad during the operation, breaking SpaceX’s safety protocols, The Information reports.

Luckily, no one was injured, and Starship did not collapse, which could have led to catastrophic setbacks for the program.

A fully stacked Starship rocket from February 2022. Credit: Seth Kurkowski / Space Explored

Starship needs to get off the ground, and quickly, if Starlink is to be a success. As we reported last year, Starship and Starlink’s survival are tied together with the launch of larger V2 satellites exclusively on Starship. That led to Musk bringing in Starlink chief Mark Juncosa to run the Starship program unofficially.

SpaceX employees report that Musk uses Juncosa on projects that need extra attention. He is reportedly notorious for pushing employees hard and not being afraid to call people out for “bad mistakes.” However, The Information states he is respected at SpaceX for being able “to make tough calls, especially when it comes to terminating employees or reorganizing teams.”

Juncosa lives in Brownsville, a place Musk has asked a lot of his employees and those that want to work for SpaceX to move to. There he has taken over the Starship program from Joe Petrzelka, vice president of spacecraft engineering, and Bill Riley, senior director of design reliability and vehicle analysis. Petrzelka and Riley still run the program on paper, but reports show that Juncosa has been in charge for the past few months.

Space Explored’s take

SpaceX has always been a move-fast and make-mistakes company. Ashlee Vance’s biography about Musk states that many NASA officials were terrified of this approach when looking at the company for ISS resupply missions. That mentality has continued as SpaceX pushes what is possible with Starship and its goal, shared by many of the employees, to colonize Mars.

The question has to be asked though, how fast is too fast? Musk stated in an interview with Everyday Astronaut last year, “if we move with extreme urgency, then we have a chance of making life multi-planetary, still just a chance, not for sure.” This year we’ve seen war come to Ukraine, and tensions between Russia and the west skyrocket. In addition, threats of nuclear warfare seem to be thrown around every day, one of the reasons Musk pushes for Martian colonization.

We’ve also seen the billionaire play a more vocal role in the current state of affairs. Musk proposed unpopular peace plans for Ukraine and Taiwan and supported Ukraine forces with Starlink internet. You could assume Musk believes he has a role in saving humanity from nuclear extinction. This thought explains why there is a possible rush to get Starship up and running.

However, that is just me speculating, and safety protocols are not something to play around with. If The Information reports are accurate, then SpaceX seems to be moving down a slippery slope of playing fast and loose with safety standards, which usually never ends well.

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