A challenge to a cage fight could soon be in the FAA’s future if the agency doesn’t wrap up its investigation into SpaceX Starship, a prototype of which exploded minutes after its initial test launch in May.
That’s been one of CEO Elon Musk’s retorts to those who stand in the way of his goal of commercial space dominance. And at the moment, the regulator may pose the greatest threat.
There appears to be a misunderstanding between the two surrounding Starship’s second test flight, which Musk in June said would happen in “six to eight weeks.” We’re now well past that timeframe. But on Tuesday, the SpaceX, Tesla, and X (formerly Twitter) CEO took to the latter platform to share some good news: the most powerful rocket ever built is “ready to launch.”
Starship is ready to launch, awaiting FAA license approval https://t.co/WjENkdudo9— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 6, 2023
Concurrently, SpaceX posted images of the Starship rocket stacked on top of the Super Heavy booster at the company’s Starbase launchpad in Boca Chica, Texas.
However, the FAA felt the need to clarify that Starship is still very much under investigation, casting doubt on Musk’s optimism.
“The SpaceX Starship mishap investigation remains open,” the agency told FLYING in a statement. “The FAA will not authorize another Starship launch until SpaceX implements the corrective actions identified during the mishap investigation and demonstrates compliance with all the regulatory requirements of the license modification process.”
The FAA clarified the ball is technically in its court. It’s still reviewing the final mishap investigation report SpaceX submitted in August and identifying the corrective actions the firm must take. Those will include modifications to its launch license to comply with regulatory requirements before it receives another green light to launch. A mishap investigation is standard when a launch or its impact does not go as planned.
Eric Berger of Ars Technica speculated, given the FAA’s update, Starship’s next launch is “likely to occur no earlier than the last 10 days of the month.”
Where Starship’s Problems Began
The FAA has now repeatedly communicated that Starship is not yet ready for another test flight. But that hasn’t diminished the optimism of Musk, SpaceX, and their supporters.
The agency’s investigation follows an April orbital test flight that began and ended in flames. The Super Heavy booster’s 33 Raptor engines roared to life on the launchpad, sending the 400-foot-tall rocket and booster 24 miles high before they spiraled out of control and exploded. SpaceX said it sent a command to Starship’s flight termination system (FTS) after the rocket and booster failed to separate as planned, causing a “rapid unscheduled disassembly.”
The explosion sent debris tumbling into the Gulf of Mexico. But even worse for SpaceX, the fireball created by the first-stage engines severely damaged the launchpad, carving out a massive crater.
The impact would also prove to be an issue for the surrounding area. It sparked a 3.5-acre brush fire and sent ash-like particulate and concrete and metal debris raining down as far away as Port Isabel, a town about 6.5 miles north of Starbase. Residents also reported broken windows, shaking buildings, and ear-splitting noise. Musk described the impact as a “rock tornado.”
The debris field was expected to span about 700 acres or just one square mile, equivalent to that of Starship’s largest explosion to date. Immediately, the FAA grounded Starship, opened its mishap investigation, and began reviewing data on the FTS (which took 40 seconds to initiate after activation) and the environmental impact on the nearby area. Starbase is surrounded by protected wetlands and the Gulf of Mexico.
The launch and explosion also sparked a lawsuit against the FAA brought by five environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Save Rio Grande Valley. The plaintiffs allege the agency allowed SpaceX to self-conduct a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) in lieu of a more robust, FAA-conducted environmental impact statement (EIS) “based on SpaceX’s preference.” They claim the PEA allowed Starship to fly sooner, while an EIS may have mitigated some of the launch’s effects.
If SpaceX and the FAA lose the case and are forced to conduct an EIS, it could add months—or potentially years—to Starship’s launch timeline. SpaceX joined the suit as a codefendant in June, and the company and the FAA are now seeking to dismiss it.
Still, the legal drama hasn’t stopped Musk from sharing what on the surface appear to be promising updates.
Updates to Starship and Starbase
Since April’s explosion, SpaceX has made “over 1,000 changes” to Starship and the Starbase launchpad, Musk told journalist Ashlee Vance in a discussion on Twitter Spaces in June.
The biggest is the addition of a water deluge system to the pad, which should shield it from the fireball and ear-splitting noise created by the 33 lower-stage engines and prevent debris from scattering for miles. The system is “basically like a gigantic upside-down shower head” that blasts water at the rocket while it sits on the pad, Musk told Vance.
The SpaceX CEO said he scrapped plans to install a water-cooled steel plate beneath the launcher for Starship’s first flight because it “wasn’t ready in time.” He later added the company thought the concrete would survive the flames.
The new system was evaluated during a static fire test in August, turning fire from the engines into steam. However, SpaceX reportedly did not apply for the proper environmental permits that would allow it to dispose of industrial wastewater from the test.
The company also upgraded the interstage area between the Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster. The changes will enable a “hot staging” maneuver, allowing the upper-stage engines to ignite before the booster engines finish burning, which Musk told Vance would improve Super Heavy’s mass-to-orbit performance by 10 percent. He added that the next flight will include more uniform engines, contrasting them to the “hodgepodge” of hardware used on the maiden voyage.
Outside of those key changes, SpaceX has conducted propellant load tests and tested a modified version of Starship’s FTS. In recent weeks, it completed hot fire tests of the Booster 9 rocket and upper-stage Ship 25 prototypes that were largely successful.
Starship’s next flight will not carry a payload. Rather, it will seek to demonstrate the performance of the 33 booster engines, stage separation between Starship and Super Heavy, and the ignition of the rocket’s six upper-stage engines. If it’s able to withstand the duration of the flight, it will splash down north of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
As it gears up for another test launch, SpaceX continues to deploy Starlink satellites, including a record-breaking 62nd orbital launch of the year earlier this week. Musk said SpaceX in 2023 accounts for around eight in ten payload deliveries from Earth to orbit. By 2024, he expects the company to handle nine in ten —and one day, he hopes to exceed 99 percent.
SpaceX also sends astronauts and paying customers to the International Space Station on its Crew Dragon spacecraft through partnerships with NASA and Axiom Space. In a few years, it will provide the system that transports astronauts from lunar orbit to the moon’s surface and back again on NASA’s Artemis III mission, scheduled for December 2025.
However, the agency all but blamed SpaceX for a potential delay to that timeline, with associate administrator for exploration systems development Jim Free worrying about the company’s “significant number of launches to go.”
Ultimately, Musk and SpaceX’s goal is to one day ferry hundreds of humans at a time to Mars. Musk has stated his hopes to establish a permanent human colony on the red planet by 2050—an aim NASA appears to share.