Oops! SpaceX Chief Engineer Elon Musk Confuses CGI Image of Starship With the Real Thing

Rocket engineers must be creative. Their line of work doesn't just revolve around being good at math, physics, and chemistry. If intelligent people really want to make our species multi-planetary sometime during this century, some out-of-the-box thinking, thorough planning, and good marketing are necessary. SpaceX CEO and Chief Engineer Elon Musk might have taken the latter too seriously.
Elon Musk and the Starship Render 15 photos
Photo: Tesla on YouTube / Elon Musk on Twitter (X) / Edited
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He could have also trusted the wrong person. It's incredibly rare to see an executive fall for such a shenanigan. It might even be a bit worrisome that someone in charge of the next era of space exploration can't figure out if a photo is real or doctored.

Elon Musk shared an image depicting SpaceX's Starship rocket in the midst of the so-called "hot stage separation" process. That term refers to the moment when the spacecraft leaves the reusable Raptor-powered booster behind. The rocket then continues on the established trajectory by firing its six engines.

Instead of having a moment where nothing happens, and the booster just separates from the main rocket, leaving it temporarily in limbo, SpaceX designed the "hot staging" maneuver. It fires up the spacecraft's engines while the booster's 33 Raptors remain partially on. The main thrusters "push down" the booster, forcing it to unscrew and take over the orbiting job.

The fantastic thing about this implementation is that it allows SpaceX to make space travel less costly and more environmentally friendly. It's also quite complicated. That may be why fans consider the latest test launch a success, while most other experts still view it as a failure.

Starship – the largest and most powerful rocket ever built – exploded. But that happened because SpaceX wanted it to go this way. The "rapid unscheduled disassembly" termination sequence was triggered after the booster broke apart and ground control lost contact with the core of Starship.

Still, people involved in this thrilling project consider this second test a win because it showed that the hot staging maneuver worked as intended. NASA could still be anxious about putting astronauts at the pointy tip of the rocket. Still, the engineers and public regulators will work together to prepare for the third launch and ensure progress is being made. SpaceX still has some more rockets left.

Starship stacking
Photo: SpaceX
But for those of us who are not very savvy about space travel, the launch of such a humongous rocket provides a chimerical, out-of-this-world experience. Seeing such large vehicles depart for the Moon or Mars can be quite emotional. The event sucks you into a temporary vacuum where day-to-day worries end and thoughts about humanity's greater collective responsibility begin. The sight is simply fascinating.

It appears that includes Elon Musk, too! The CEO might have forgotten for a minute that he was spearheading this effort and didn't bother to check whether an image he saw online was the real deal.

Musk uploaded a picture of Starship on his social media network X, formerly Twitter, which depicted the hot stage separation process. However, that image was first published in August and is not real. It's part of a series of renders done by an artist named Alex Svan.

X users took advantage of Community Notes and informed Musk's followers about what that image really was, but even their assessment was partially wrong. The render wasn't based on the actual footage of Starship's second launch.

Now, is this a big deal? Nowadays, we have many sources of information. In theory, we should be able to tell when something's fake by consulting multiple publications. But attention spans are shortening because of platforms like TikTok or Instagram Reels. But having an executive share a doctored image shouldn't be a significant worry. There are more social media networks out there, and news outlets are still doing their job. If you intend to know the truth, you could get to the bottom of a certain subject relatively easily.

Still, SpaceX and X (Twitter) are Elon Musk's companies. Someone could argue that a CEO with so much entrepreneurial experience should be more responsible and less quick to spread unverified information.

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About the author: Florin Amariei
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Car shows on TV and his father's Fiat Tempra may have been Florin's early influences, but nowadays he favors different things, like the power of an F-150 Raptor. He'll never be able to ignore the shape of a Ferrari though, especially a yellow one.
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