An Explosive End For A Massive Rocket

9:53 minutes

This week, SpaceX attempted the first uncrewed orbital test flight of its massive Super Heavy rocket topped with an experimental crew capsule known as Starship. After one aborted launch earlier in the week, the huge rocket successfully  lifted off Thursday morning—but minutes later, the Starship component failed to separate from the Super Heavy booster, and the combined rocket stack exploded.  While a setback for the team, SpaceX head Elon Musk said that a lot had been learned from the flight, and another test launch would take place in several months. 

Purbita Saha, senior editor at Popular Science, joins SciFri’s John Dankosky to talk about the launch and other stories from the week in science, including an Earth Day look at water conservation issues across the country, and the materials science of Maya plaster.

Segment Guests

Purbita Saha

Purbita Saha is Senior Deputy Editor at Popular Science in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.

MADDIE SOFIA: And I’m Maddie Sofia. You may know me as a former host of the show Shortwave, from NPR. John and I are sitting in this week for Ira Flatow.

Later in the hour, debunking myths about periods.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Plus, do you ever wonder how anesthesia works? Well, we’ll give you a crash course on how anesthesiologists are able to create that perfect combination of drugs so you’re asleep, you don’t feel pain, and you don’t remember the surgery.

But first, this week, SpaceX attempted an uncrewed test launch of its massive Super Heavy rocket topped with an experimental space vehicle that’s called Starship. The huge rocket did launch, but minutes later it exploded.

Joining me now to talk about that and other stories from The Week in Science is Purbita Saha, senior deputy editor at Popular Science, based in New York City. Purbita, welcome back to Science Friday.

PURBITA SAHA: Yeah, hello.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s start with this rocket. What exactly was this big rocket, and why was this test so significant?

PURBITA SAHA: Yeah. This flight test was really the hype of the week. It was originally scheduled for Tuesday, but then was moved to Thursday morning. And it was the first time that the Starship was going to be launched with the Super Heavy rocket booster. So this contraption is massive. It’s almost 400 feet tall, weighs a couple of million pounds, and there are 33 methane engines on that thing. So getting it off the ground was a real feat in itself.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. And I suppose we should be using the past tense here because it exploded, as we saw. Do we know what went wrong?

PURBITA SAHA: Well, the goal was to get the rocket into orbit, even though SpaceX said there was less than a 50% chance of that happening. So four minutes into the flight, over the Gulf of Mexico– I think the rocket was only 25 miles up in the atmosphere– it just started spinning, and then it exploded.

And it probably won’t be the last one. Pairing these two together is really essential for using the Starship for the Artemis 3 moon landing mission, which is the plan in 2025. But to get there and to actually carry cargo and carry astronauts, SpaceX is going to have to test this thing many, many more times. And their strategy seems to just be launch it and see how far it goes.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, let’s stay in space for just a moment here. Monday is the anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. And you’ve got an article coming out about just why it’s still so relevant even with the amazing new things that we can now see with the JWST Telescope. Tell us about what’s so important about this Hubble history.

PURBITA SAHA: Yeah. With all the JWST amazing images that we’ve been seeing, a lot of them have focused on galaxies and nebula that Hubble previously saw through its lenses. And this just had me thinking, what is Hubble still doing, and is it still relevant to astronomy today?

So I talked to two experts, Ray Villard, from the Space Telescope Science Institute, and Jennifer Wiseman, a senior project scientist from NASA, recently. And both of them agreed that the two really complement each other well. Hubble is the OG. It went up in space 33 years ago. And when it did, it was looking at parts of the infrared light spectrum and UV light spectrum that no other space telescope could see.

So a lot of the star formations and other parts of the solar system that we’ve seen through Hubble’s eyes, those were unprecedented at the time. JWST builds on that because it can see parts of star formations that are actually relics from an ancient time because it can see further into the infrared light spectrum. So it has a different capacity than Hubble.

And when they both have their lenses fixed on a particular subject, it gives us the entire life history of that group of stars, let’s say.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, speaking of life history, though, how much longer does Hubble have to live?

PURBITA SAHA: Hubble is in pretty good shape. I mean, it can go at least another decade, both of these experts say, but maybe even longer. It might surprise us. It is sagging a little bit in its orbit. So there might be a plan to boost it up a little, maybe with SpaceX’s help. But Hubble is still kicking. There are hundreds of scientific proposals to use it each year.

I really love this quote that Ray gave me. He said that there’s only one Hubble. And if you’re comparing them to pop music icons, Hubble is like the Beatles. There were only one Beatles. He did concede that maybe JWST is like the Rolling Stones.


JOHN DANKOSKY: I suppose that’s a good analogy. Well, this weekend is Earth Day. And it means we’re thinking a lot about the environment, of course. We’ve talked a lot about water conservation issues on the program, especially what’s happening around the Colorado River Basin.

You’ve got some water conservation news that’s coming not out of the West, though, but coming from Washington. What can you tell us?

PURBITA SAHA: Yeah. So we have this years’ long battle over the Clean Water Act, and a very tiny portion of it that can have a really big impact on local habitats. A couple of years ago, the Obama administration expanded what’s called the Waters of the US Rule, which actually defines which kind of water bodies are protected by the Clean Water Act. And they expanded it to include not just rivers and lakes and big bodies of water, but also tiny pockets like wetlands and streams.

And during the Trump administration, this definition was limited again. So there has been this back-and-forth, and now that case has finally gone up to the Supreme Court. They just heard the arguments last fall, and are expected to decide on what the final definition should be. Should it include all wetlands? Should it only include wetlands that are permanent or next to running bodies of water?

So this decision is expected later this year– probably late summer and the fall again. And it’s a lot of legal gnarliness. So it’s hard to think of how that impacts us as individuals every day, right? But if you think about it, wetlands are one of the most ubiquitous landscapes across the US. Pretty much everyone has a wetland in their neighborhood. And even if we don’t drink straight from them, they are very important to our local health. They help protect us from storms. They are goldmines of biodiversity. So having the Clean Water Act protect wetlands, that makes a pretty big difference.

And I’ve just been thinking about that in terms of the Earth Day message because we have struggled for so long to preserve water and to make sure that it can be shared equitably. And it’s something we can continue to do in our individual lives, but also press our governments to prioritize, and also just understand how it can work better around the world to get water to the people and to the living things that need it most.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, I think it’s a really great message as we head into this Earth Day weekend. I want to go to our last story, Purbita. And it’s really cool. It’s materials science, but it’s not exactly a news story. It’s about how the Mayans made their plaster. What can you tell us about this?

PURBITA SAHA: Yeah. So this finding is quite fresh. A mineralogist from the University of Granada went to the ancient Maya city of Copan, which is in present-day Honduras. And he took a look at some of the structures that have persevered over a millennia there. And the reason that they were so resilient possibly is because of the plaster that they were built with. It wasn’t any old plaster, which is usually made of limestone, water, and some chemical reactions. But, rather, the ancient Maya masons probably mixed in plant sap from two tree species in their local forests.

The power of the plant sap was that it made the structures more resilient to water and the humidity in the local environment. The mineralogist recreated this special mixture, and then compared it microscopically to another naturally made substance, known as mother of pearl, which is seen in the shells of mollusks. And on a microscopic level, they had a very similar structure. There was kind of like a crystalline hard structure and then some flexible proteins in between.

So basically, how mollusks withstand weathering under the ocean waves, that’s how these Maya buildings withstood the natural elements. Which is really neat. I mean, we’re all still guessing here, but it’s a pretty cool experiment.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It’s a very cool experiment. I love the connection between these trees and these traditional building materials and mollusks, and all coming together. And we can actually learn something about how people build something all those years ago.

Purbita, thanks so much for bringing us that story. It’s so cool. Purbita Saha is senior deputy editor at Popular Science, based in New York City. Thanks for being here.

PURBITA SAHA: Thank you. Have a lovely weekend.

JOHN DANKOSKY: You, as well.

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About John Dankosky

John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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