The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has officially closed its investigation into the April 20 launch mishap of SpaceX's Starship, marking a significant milestone in the path towards the second-ever Starship test flight. The investigation, led by SpaceX with oversight from the FAA, uncovered multiple root causes of the mishap and identified "63 corrective actions that SpaceX must take to prevent a reocurrence."
The inaugural flight of SpaceX's massive Starship vehicle was intended to be a momentous occasion, launching the Starship upper-stage prototype around Earth, concluding with a splashdown near Hawaii. However, the mission encountered various issues, including the failure of the two stages to separate, triggering Starship's Autonomous Flight Safety System to destroy the vehicle high above the Gulf of Mexico. Additional issues arose during the investigation, such as delays in the self-destruct command and damage caused to the launch site by the immense power of Super Heavy's 33 Raptor engines.
"Corrective actions include redesigns of vehicle hardware to prevent leaks and fires, redesign of the launch pad to increase its robustness, incorporation of additional reviews in the design process, additional analysis and testing of safety critical systems and components including the Autonomous Flight Safety System, and the application of additional change control practices," said FAA representatives in their announcement on September 8. "The closure of the mishap investigation does not signal an immediate resumption of Starship launches at Boca Chica. SpaceX must implement all corrective actions that impact public safety and apply for and receive a license modification from the FAA that addresses all safety, environmental and other applicable regulatory requirements prior to the next Starship launch," they stated.
As of today, the FAA nor SpaceX have not yet released information about what are all the "63 corrective actions." To address these concerns, SpaceX has already initiated significant changes and upgrades, with company founder Elon Musk confirming "thousands of upgrades" to Starship, the launch pad, and the launch tower at Starbase. One notable upgrade is the transition to "hot staging," where the Starship upper-stage ignites its engines before fully separating from the first stage, so engineers designed a heat shield and installed a new "vented interstage." SpaceX also reinforced the ground beneath the launch mount with a steel plate and a water-based deluge system to mitigate the destructive force of Super Heavy's engines.
SpaceX has responded by acknowledging the lessons learned from the maiden flight of Starship and Super Heavy, emphasizing their rapid iterative development approach and ongoing commitment to improving the launch system's success rate. During the April 20 launch, "Starship climbed to a maximum altitude of ~39 km (24 mi) over the Gulf of Mexico. During ascent, the vehicle sustained fires from leaking propellant in the aft end of the Super Heavy booster, which eventually severed connection with the vehicle’s primary flight computer. This led to a loss of communications to the majority of booster engines and, ultimately, control of the vehicle. SpaceX has since implemented leak mitigations and improved testing on both engine and booster hardware. As an additional corrective action, SpaceX has significantly expanded Super Heavy’s pre-existing fire suppression system in order to mitigate against future engine bay fires," the company shared. "The Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS) automatically issued a destruct command, which fired all detonators as expected, after the vehicle deviated from the expected trajectory, lost altitude and began to tumble. After an unexpected delay following AFSS activation, Starship ultimately broke up 237.474 seconds after engine ignition. SpaceX has enhanced and requalified the AFSS to improve system reliability."
In summary, the closure of the FAA investigation represents a pivotal moment for SpaceX's Starship program, highlighting the company's determination to overcome challenges and refine its innovative launch system for future missions. "Testing development flight hardware in a flight environment is what enables our teams to quickly learn and execute design changes and hardware upgrades to improve the probability of success in the future," said SpaceX, "We learned a tremendous amount about the vehicle and ground systems during Starship’s first flight test. Recursive improvement is essential as we work to build a fully reusable launch system capable of carrying satellites, payloads, crew, and cargo to a variety of orbits and Earth, lunar, or Martian landing sites."
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Featured Images Source: SpaceX
About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.