Starship OFT thoughts

Lavie Ohana
8 min readApr 21, 2023

I watched Starship’s first orbital flight test on April 20, 2023 from 5 miles away at the SpaceX media site on South Padre Island, TX. Here are my thoughts, written same day:

Where the hell do I even start?

Personal bits first. That launch was possibly the coolest thing I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes. I first saw Starship just 18 hours ago last night, standing just 300 feet from the launch mount staring up at the rocket in awe. There aren’t words to describe the feeling of being out on the pad with a super heavy launch vehicle under 12 hours from liftoff, at night no less, but I’ll try:

The Orbital Launch Mount is essentially on the beach. It’s sandy, you can hear the waves crashing, and to get to the closest spot, it’s about a 10 minute trek through dunes and brush. As you get closer, the tank farm is breathing and venting the whole time — loud enough to completely disrupt conversation. Starship’s tiled side faces you, which at night is dark, nearly unresolvable, except for when the tower’s lights blink (which light up the whole sky for a moment).

There isn’t a fence or anything else that really “stops” you from approaching the pad. The only real boundary is a set of posts along the trail that mark the line between public and SpaceX property. If you stick to them, you end up just 300 feet from the rocket — closer to it than the rocket and launch mount are tall. At the end, you’re faced with the largest heavier-than-air flying machine ever built, its gargantuan infrastructure, and nothing else but the pitch black of the night and the constant sound of the waves crashing and the tanks venting. The rocket feels alive and breathing, and yet, you’re certainly close enough that it would kill you in an instant if you were to stay there for just a few more hours, assuming nobody caught you.

It is one of the most unsettling feelings you can ever have. I’ve been close to ready-to-launch rockets before, a thousand feet from Falcon or SLS, and just five hundred from Delta IV Heavy, which I thought was a beast in its own right that day.

But I’ve never just walked up to the largest rocket ever built with no fanfare, no process, no safety, just myself and a machine far too big to truly put into scale.

I felt tiny. And despite having friends by my side, I had this sinking feeling deep down that I shouldn’t be here, that I wasn’t invited — that if something were to happen or I overstayed my welcome, the Titan in front of me would extinguish me as if I were an ant.

But that didn’t happen. We went back, got some sleep, and headed back out for the launch attempt, which we all were somewhat hoping would push a day as confidence was low. We made it to our viewing site and watched as conditions cleared up and suddenly, this feeling that “maybe we’re actually going to go today” settled in. The same feeling I had back when Artemis I launched. A slight hold there, resolved problem here, and suddenly it was T- 40 seconds and the clock was ticking down for the last time. I felt my heart as if it were on fire while time crawled to a standstill and then:

Fire. Smoke. The engines had lit, and then immediately shrouded the entire vehicle in a smokescreen far thicker than any launch I had ever seen. There was no flame trench to keep the view clear. We didn’t even know if it kept burning, or if it was burning, if it’d blow up on the pad.

A few seconds later, Starship rose from the ashes.

There’s a video somewhere of me, Derek, David, and some other friends screaming at the top of our lungs. I’ll see if I can find it. I don’t think I can put into words the sheer excitement from just seeing the vehicle intact, rising, climbing. The sound hit us right after — one of the loudest launches I’ve ever been at, with shockwaves that just felt like getting punched over and over and over. Even through all the excitement, we still figured something was going wrong… quick.

Methane plumes are not the brightest out there. They’re purple, transparent, and at the scale of Super Heavy, formed a single large set of mach diamonds. Yet that plume was rapidly interrupted by streaks of bright yellow a quarter mile long that completely outshined everything else. For a moment, I thought that that was it, hand in my pocket ready to grab my earplugs, waiting for the inevitable explosion.

Yet Starship kept going.

Engine after engine flamed out, and yet the rocket kept going. Just, really, really slowly.

I think in almost all of my shots, there’s something visibly wrong with Starship. Whether it’s the tanks venting fuel overboard constantly, or more engines flaming out, or power units failing, the rocket was on the verge of failure for the entire flight. Honestly, I’m extremely impressed it made it as far as it did. There was definitely a beauty to the whole launch, but it came to an end when finally, Starship slowly entered a tumble, flipping end over end over four times (an insane sight on the ground) and in a final act, detonated 30 kilometers over our heads. The sound from the launch would keep going for another few minutes until it ended with a light, anticlimactic, set of thumps. We were left with nothing more but an empty launchpad and a smoke cloud that rose miles high.

So what do I think of the launch? In terms of the experience of simply witnessing it first hand, it was possibly the single coolest thing I’ve ever seen. I am so incredibly glad I flew out here to see it, and I will be back for Flight 2. I reccommend to anyone reading — if you can make it, come to the next launch. You will not be disappointed.

From a technical perspective, it gets dicey. With this mission it’s easier to start with what didn’t go wrong rather than what did. The rocket held together insanely well structurally, much better than I expected. The tower worked, at least, the quick disconnects did. That’s… kind of about it.

The launch itself hurled debris thousands of feet in some cases. I watched with David and Derek as they tried to find out if their remote cameras still even existed, and as we saw the picture of the Orbital Launch Mount with a 40-foot hole excavated from under it by the rocket, foundation exposed and all.

To put it kindly… I have concerns about the future of the program. It will likely take until at least 2024 to get another orbital flight test, an OFT-2 per se, off the ground. The pad is in completely inoperable condition, the tank farm is severely damaged, and significant redesigns to much of the infrastructure and likely the vehicle are on the board now. Make no mistake, this is no situation similar to Falcon 9’s landings, where a failure had little implications for operational missions, but instead a hard delay to the entire program.

Starship was contracted to land humans on the moon next year. Yes, perhaps that was an incredibly unrealistic goal, but now it’s likely to have never even made it to space by the beginning of that year. An OFT-2 is required, but so is a new launchpad, revised permits, fixed tank farms, new designs, and inevitably reviews of the whole system. There were a lot of lessons learned on this flight. Implementing them will not be easy.

As it stands right now, Starship HLS must duplicate this feat at least sixteen times — a number several sources have verified repeatedly — in (relatively) rapid succession in order to achieve its mission. While today was an incredible first step, it is step one of a hundred, and it certainly didn’t get a passing grade from a programmatic standpoint. If at minimum a delay to early 2024 is assumed, Starship is now two years late to step one. A propellant transfer test, long-duration flight test, and landing demo still remain. Each of which requires far more than the former.

Do not take this to mean that these things are impossible. Today was a remarkable and commendable proof of concept. But personally, I worry that SpaceX will only be able to stomach so much reconstruction and failure before push comes to shove, and the program goes the way of its Soviet sibling. Developing a launch vehicle like this costs billions — estimates and leaks suggest SpaceX has spent well over $10b so far. That is an extreme amount of capital expenditure normally relegated to nation-states. Can they keep it up? How long will they have access to that money?

I don’t know. Very few people genuinely do know SpaceX’s true financial situation.

From a customer perspective, it doesn’t look good. The U.S. taxpayer paid north of $3 billion for Starship to land crew on the Moon — now with Artemis III, but also on Artemis IV, and perhaps future missions too.

Artemis III’s SLS will be ready to go, late 2025. Artemis IV, even with its own delays for ML-2 (a pad that, while expensive, will ideally still exist after one launch) and the Exploration Upper Stage, should be ready by 2028. Will Starship be ready in time for either mission?

NASA’s Inspector General had already noted a recommendation that Artemis III’s landing be canceled as early as late 2021. With the SLS production rate only ramping up, this seems all but certain now. Not only that, but NASA’s planning to have to stockpile core stages, making room in Michoud and the VAB’s spare high bays for SLS storage.

If you had told anyone just two years ago that SLS would beat Starship, fly perfectly, and become the component of the Artemis program that contributed to delays the least, you’d have been laughed out of the room. And yet, here we are — of America’s two new and flown super-heavy launch vehicles, one has sent a deep-space crew-capable spacecraft to the Moon and back, while the other totaled its launchpad, struggled and failed the whole way up, and finally exploded not even a third of the way to space — nevermind orbit — carrying nothing more than the hopes and dreams of the Artemis generation.

To achieve our dreams we must be bold. We must face adversity, we must face hardship, and inevitably, sometimes we must wait. I would love to see a future where we have two super-heavy launch vehicles online, flying crews and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, and then on to Mars. Our future lies in the stars, but perhaps, our time has not come quite yet.

But most important of all, I will be there next time we try — and I reccomend you do as well. For there’s nothing more inspiring and awesome than to see that Titan lumber into the skies, breaking free of the chains of gravity, hoping someday we all can do the same.

See you at Starship flight two.

(P.S. Thank you to Derek, David, Will, Tyler, and everyone else I’ve bumped into out here at Starbase. It’s been great.)

There’s a part 2 to this story now, written about a week after. If you’d like to read that too, you can find it here: Starship II: A Reprise. Et tu, Starship? | by Lavie Ohana | May, 2023 | Medium

About Me:
I’m a spaceflight reporter, photojournalist, and managing editor of Space Scout. I’ve attended over 20 orbital launches so far. If you’d like to keep up with me, you can follow me here: https://twitter.com/lavie154

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Lavie Ohana

Formerly a spaceflight reporter, now doing business development at an up-and-coming space company. Opinions here solely my own. they/she