The First Fully Integrated Starship vehicle just before FTS activation, during the first Integrated Flight Test. Credits: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Starship: Under FAA Review for Next Launch

FAA Evaluates SpaceX's Starship mishap report, a crucial step before the next launch. Technical strides and legal complexities await resolution

Advancing its endeavors, SpaceX has taken a significant stride by submitting a mishap investigation report to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) concerning the April test flight of its colossal Starship rocket.

Starship lifting off from Starbase. Credits: SpaceX
Starship lifting off from Starbase. Credits: SpaceX

A spokesperson from the regulatory agency disclosed this development on Tuesday.

Why is it important

This milestone acquires importance as it indicates that SpaceX has concluded its inquiry into the April 20 Starship test launch.

The test, marred by engine failures and other ascent-related issues, terminated approximately four minutes post-liftoff. The FAA’s current role involves scrutinizing SpaceX’s investigation report, aligning with its responsibility to ensure public safety during commercial launch operations.

The FAA spokesperson clarified, “Upon approval of the final mishap report, SpaceX will be directed towards corrective actions. Additionally, SpaceX must adjust its license to incorporate these actions before gaining authorization for future launches”.

The filing of the mishap investigation report by SpaceX was originally disclosed by Payload, a reputable space industry news outlet. Although the report’s contents remain undisclosed, SpaceX refrained from providing any comments when approached by multiple reporters.


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Exploring Future Endeavors

In the typical fashion of SpaceX’s Starship program, predicting the company’s next attempt at launching a fully integrated Starship rocket stack, towering at around 400 feet (120 meters), has proven challenging.

Elon Musk, the CEO and founder of SpaceX, had mentioned in mid-June that the company could potentially be prepared for another Starship test flight within six to eight weeks. However, this generous timeline has now expired.

Starship's 33 Raptor Engines plume as seen from the launch and Catch Tower. Credits: SpaceX
Starship’s 33 Raptor Engines plume as seen from the launch and Catch Tower. Credits: SpaceX

A significant portion of SpaceX’s effort has been channeled into restoring and enhancing the Starship launch pad situated at the Starbase facility in South Texas. A validation of these repairs was carried out successfully through a Static Fire of the Super Heavy booster of the Starship rocket on the launch mount, conducted on August 6.

Despite the achievement, the hot-fire test concluded prematurely, covering only half of the planned five-second duration with multiple Raptor V2 Engines shutting down.

Notably, several Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster also ceased operation prematurely during the April 20 test flight. This incident raised concerns about the reliability of SpaceX’s new engine. The company is actively engaged in designing a new “V3” version of the Raptor engine to address these apprehensions.


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Data for the Launch Pad and Deluge

Everyone expected that the hot-fire test would have furnished SpaceX engineers with a wealth of data related to the upgraded launch pad. Portions of this information might have been included in the final version of SpaceX’s mishap investigation report.

One salient modification to the launch site involved the installation of a water-cooled steel plate underneath the Super Heavy booster. The Raptor engines’ forceful thrust had excavated a substantial cavity beneath the launch mount, propelling car-size fragments of concrete into the neighboring wetlands and Gulf of Mexico.

The Full-pressure Test of Starship Flame Deflector. Credits: SpaceX
The Full-pressure Test of Starship Flame Deflector. Credits: SpaceX

The Mighty FTS

Another episode in the sequence regards Starship’s self-destruct mechanism, technically named Autonomous Flight Termination System, essentially a pyrotechnic charge designed to rupture the fuel tanks.

This mechanism exhibited an extended delay in annihilating the vehicle as it veered uncontrollably high above the Gulf of Mexico. The flight termination system on the Super Heavy booster consumed approximately 40 seconds from initiation to the rocket’s disintegration. The FAA, vested with the authority to regulate launch operations in the interest of public safety, is evaluating this matter as well.

The First Fully Integrated Starship vehicle just before FTS activation, during the first Integrated Flight Test. Credits: SpaceX
The First Fully Integrated Starship vehicle just before FTS activation, during the first Integrated Flight Test. Credits: SpaceX

In May, Musk mentioned that recalibrating the flight termination system would perhaps entail more time than any other preparation for the forthcoming Starship second test flight.

Post the hot-fire test on August 6, SpaceX transported the Super Heavy booster 9, earmarked for the next Starship test flight, back to a hangar situated just inland from the seaside launch pad.

Technicians then installed a new structural ring atop the booster. This will enable a new “hot-staging” methodology, to be employed during the second full-scale Starship test launch. Consequently, the fully integrated rocket will stand slightly taller than the vehicle that embarked on its voyage in April.


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Legal Considerations

Beyond technical progress, SpaceX finds itself entangled in a legal scenario.

In May, environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the FAA, seeking a comprehensive environmental impact assessment and study of SpaceX’s launch operations in Texas before resuming Starship test flights.

In July then, a federal court allowed SpaceX to join the lawsuit as a co-defendant with the FAA, following which the company requested the court to dismiss the suit. Before the April launch, the FAA concluded its preliminary environmental assessment for full-size Starship test flights.

As of now, the federal regulator has abstained from commenting on the ongoing litigation.

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Edoardo Giammarino

Edoardo Giammarino

Co-Founder & Administrator. Drummer and Red Cross Volunteer, born in 1997. I like analog photography and videomaking. Firmly music-addicted.

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