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Starship Lifts Off, Explodes Before Stage Separation

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After a failed first attempt, SpaceX‘s massive Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket lifted off from the company’s flight test facility in Boca Chica, Texas at 8:37 am CDT on April 20, 2023. With a smooth launch powered by 33 raptor engines burning their way into orbit, it seemed the rocket was successfully proceeding on its first test flight until five engines failed seconds after liftoff. Then, before the ship and booster separated, the vehicle began to spin fast before SpaceX destroyed the ship mid-flight via the flight termination system.

Lessons from Failure

Although the unscheduled disassembly was a bit disappointing, SpaceX says Starship reached significant milestones during this first test flight, pointing out that “with a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and today’s test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multi-planetary.” Now, the teams will continue to review data and work toward Starship’s next flight test.

Designed to take up to 100 humans to the Moon and beyond, Starship is a key part of SpaceX’s broader vision for space exploration and colonization, which includes establishing a human presence on Mars and making space travel more accessible and affordable for people around the world. The company has also announced plans to launch Starship on a mission around the Moon with a crew of private citizens in 2023, although perhaps now the timing of that mission remains uncertain.

3D Printing on the Starship

Like many other launch vehicles before it, Starship has a significant number of 3D printed parts. Still, ever since the construction of the first prototypes began in late 2018 at Boca Chica, it was clear that additive manufacturing (AM) would play an extensive role in its fabrication process.

On several occasions, Elon Musk has spoken about SpaceX’s use of 3D printing in the design and production of Starship. One of the earliest instances was during a presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, in September 2017, when he emphasized the importance of using 3D printing in the production of Starship, stating that “we’re really making a huge investment in 3D printing. It’s probably going to be the main way that we create the structure of the rocket.”

Musk went on to say that SpaceX aims to use 3D printing for as many parts of Starship as possible, including both the engines and the airframe. Since then, SpaceX has 3D printed a wide range of engine components, such as the combustion chamber and nozzle extensions, as well as various brackets, fittings, and other elements throughout the spacecraft. The company has also invested heavily in developing new 3D printing technologies and materials, aiming to improve further the speed, quality, and performance of its manufacturing processes.

Allowing for faster production and greater design flexibility, the 3D printed parts on Starship are produced using a range of AM techniques, including direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and electron beam melting (EBM). Overall, 3D printing has been a critical factor in SpaceX’s ability to rapidly prototype and iterate on the design of Starship, as well as to produce parts with high precision and performance.

A pioneer in using AM in the aerospace industry, SpaceX has been extensively leveraging the technology to manufacture parts for its rockets and spacecraft, especially for components that would be difficult or impossible to manufacture using traditional methods. Although the company doesn’t usually disclose much about its 3D printing facilities, it has shared plenty of snippets with updates on some of its latest developments. We know, for example, that SpaceX used DMLS to produce complex engine components, such as the injector plate for the Raptor engine, which powers the Starship and Super Heavy booster. Previously, the Merlin engines (designed to power Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles) also demanded 3D printed parts, particularly the thrust chamber, nozzle, and injector.

These are other components that have been 3D printed by SpaceX:

  • Engine components: The SuperDraco hypergolic propellant rocket engine designed and built by SpaceX uses a titanium engine chamber created with the EBM process. Additionally, stereolithography (SLA) was used to produce small, high-precision parts, such as the engine igniter housing, and SpaceX relied on selective laser melting (SLM) for the Raptor’s turbopump housing.
  • Fuel system components: SpaceX also has 3D printed fuel system components, such as the fuel manifold, for its rocket engines.
  • Heat shields: To carry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), SpaceX built the Crew Dragon spacecraft with a 3D printed heat shield designed to protect the capsule and its occupants during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
  • Valves and fittings: SpaceX has 3D printed valves and fittings for its rockets and spacecraft, which control propellant flow and other fluids.
  • Payload fairings: Another example is 3D printed components for the payload fairings that protect satellites and other payloads during launch
  • Grid fins: The grid fins used on the first stage of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets have also been additively manufactured. These parts help guide the rocket during its descent back to Earth.

The bottom of SpaceX’s Starship booster is visible with all its engines. Image courtesy of SpaceX

Enabling the production of complex, high-performance parts that are critical to the success of its rockets and spacecraft, 3D printing has been highly beneficial to SpaceX. Throughout the last decades, it has worked with several 3D printing brands to manufacture parts for its rockets, most notably EOS, Concept Laser (a GE company), Velo3D, SLM Solutions, Stratasys, and 3D Systems.

With Velo3D, in particular, SpaceX has developed a tight relationship. The 3D printing company has stated that SpaceX chose its Sapphire system for its ability to produce parts with consistent quality and performance, even for complex geometries and challenging materials, so it has likely been used to make some of the metal parts for SpaceX’s rockets and spacecraft. However, the specific details of these parts have not been publicly disclosed.

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