The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has concluded its investigation into the first launch of SpaceX‘s massive Starship vehicle. The investigation, conducted by SpaceX and overseen by the FAA, identified ‘multiple causes’ of the launch failure. FAA officials also stated that Elon Musk‘s company must undertake 63 corrective actions to prevent future incidents.
The conclusion of the investigation marks a significant step toward the second test flight of the Starship. SpaceX aims to launch it as soon as possible from the Starbase near the city of Boca Chica in South Texas. However, FAA officials have emphasized that the path is not clear for the second launch.
“The closure of the incident investigation does not signal an immediate resumption of Starship launches at Boca Chica” they stated in today’s announcement. “SpaceX must implement all corrective actions that impact public safety. Additionally, they must request and receive a license modification from the FAA that meets all safety and environmental regulatory requirements before the next launch”.
Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built, boasting nearly twice the thrust at liftoff of NASA‘s Space Launch System (SLS) megarocket. Starship consists of two fully reusable elements, both powered by SpaceX’s Raptor engines: a massive first-stage booster called Super Heavy and a 50-meter-tall upper stage known as Starship.
The April 20th flight marked the first time the two flew together. Goal was to send the prototype of the upper stage, Ship24, around Earth, culminating in a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. However, Starship experienced a series of issues, most notably the failure to separate its two stages. As a result, the Starship’s autonomous flight safety system was activated, destroying the vehicle high above the Gulf of Mexico.
All Required Modifications
Additional problems emerged after the FAA ‘s thorough investigation into the Starship launch. Firstly, the self-destruct command took longer than expected to act. The immense power of the 33 Raptor engines caused significant damage to the Starbase. Those engines dug a crater beneath the launch pad’s orbital support, sending chunks of concrete hundreds of meters into the air.
“Corrective actions include vehicle hardware redesign to prevent leaks and fires. Redesign of the launch pad for increased robustness is also necessary. Adding further revisions in the design, analysis, and testing process of safety-critical systems and components is essential. Particular attention is given to reviewing the autonomous flight safety system” FAA officials wrote in the statement.
SpaceX has already completed much of this work. In a recent post on X, the billionaire entrepreneur stated that the company has made “thousands of updates” to Starship, the launch platform, and the massive Starbase launch tower.
The most significant technical upgrade is the addition of hot staging. The upper stage of a launch vehicle begins igniting its engines before fully separating from the first stage. This change required the installation of a heat shield and a “ventilated interstage” on the Super Heavy slated for subsequent flight, a prototype called Booster9.
SpaceX has also fortified the surface beneath the Starbase orbital launch support with a steel plate, which sprays water to dissipate the destructive power of Super Heavy’s 33 Raptors. This deluge system demonstrated its effectiveness during a recent static fire engine test of Booster 9.”