“Six to eight weeks,” Elon Musk replied when asked about the next launch of SpaceX Starship after its maiden voyage went up in flames in April. Since Musk’s June 13 comment, SpaceX has tweeted that its Starship Super Heavy Booster 9 was transported to the company’s Starbase launchpad and shared updates on completed propellant load and flame deflector tests.
Additional view of Starship flame deflector test pic.twitter.com/fOLVfAZVZ2— SpaceX (@SpaceX) July 28, 2023
But about six weeks since Musk made his prediction, Starship is still grounded—and may stay that way.
The FAA told FLYING that SpaceX has not yet submitted a final mishap investigation report as part of the agency’s ongoing investigation of the April explosion. To modify its launch license and add flights to its calendar, SpaceX must file the report and take FAA-required actions, steps that could add months to the company’s timetable.
“Public safety and actions yet to be taken by SpaceX will dictate the timeline,” the FAA told FLYING, refusing to speculate on when exactly its investigation may close.
In the wake of the Starship explosion that sent concrete and metal debris flying over six miles away, the FAA opened a mishap investigation, which is standard when a launch does not go as planned. The investigation’s goal is to determine the root cause of the accident and identify the actions SpaceX needs to take to prevent it from happening again.
The investigation, also overseen by NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board, can only close once the FAA approves SpaceX’s final report, including those required actions. And further, SpaceX must implement the actions before Starship flies again, adding more time to the process.
SpaceX did not immediately respond to FLYING’s request for comment.
How SpaceX Got Here
Since April, SpaceX has been grounded because of a test flight that both began and ended in flames.
The launch of the fully integrated Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster—combined, the most powerful spacecraft ever built—was scrapped minutes before its original launch on April 17. But that Thursday, the 400-foot tall rocket took off, reached 24 miles in altitude, and promptly spiraled out of control, exploding and sending debris tumbling into the Gulf of Mexico.
My Autotrack software captures the moment that Starship lost control. Excitement was very much guaranteed. Great first attempt by the SpaceX team!— Michael Baylor (@MichaelBaylor_) April 20, 2023
Tune in to hear our live reaction! @NASASpaceflight https://t.co/uutBwWSABz pic.twitter.com/in201JaOiU
SpaceX said the “rapid unscheduled disassembly” was caused by Starship’s flight termination system, essentially a self-destruct mechanism. The company did not say whether it was automatically or manually activated.
Prior to the launch, Musk himself gave Starship just a 50 percent chance of reaching orbit, saying the mission would be a success so long as it didn’t “blow up the launchpad.” But the Boca Chica, Texas launchpad, which unlike other large launch sites, did not have a flame trench or water deluge system, was severely damaged by a massive crater.
The launch strewed concrete and metal debris for miles and an ash-like particulate was reported in Port Isabel, about 6.5 miles from Starbase. Shaking buildings and broken windows were also reported in Port Isabel and South Padre Island, where onlookers gathered to watch the flight 5 miles away. In addition, the flight caused more noise than expected and sparked brush fires near the launchpad. Musk described the impact as a “rock tornado.”
The debris field was expected to span 700 acres or about one square mile, equivalent to the one created by Starship’s largest explosion to date. Almost immediately, the FAA grounded Starship and launched its investigation. It also called on SpaceX to analyze the impact of the launch and complete “environmental mitigations.”
A Lawsuit Creates More Headaches
The town of Port Isabel said the launch created no “immediate concern for people’s health,” adding that environmental groups were holding judgment.
But some of them didn’t hold off for very long. On May 1, five environmental organizations sued the FAA over its launch handling. They called for it to conduct an environmental impact statement (EIS), which they say would have mitigated the launch’s effects.
In approving Starship’s inaugural launch, the FAA instead relied on a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA), considered less stringent than an EIS because SpaceX itself conducted it. In fact, the groups accused the agency of forgoing an EIS “on SpaceX’s behalf.”
After submitting its PEA, SpaceX was required to take over 75 actions to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. But the groups further allege those actions were insufficient and that the FAA did not consider alternative proposals, such as a timeline with fewer launches.
While SpaceX itself isn’t being sued, the suit threatens to delay Starship launches potentially for years. If the FAA loses, it would be required to conduct an EIS for Starship. For context, nearly one year passed between the draft of SpaceX’s PEA and the final proposal. An EIS typically takes longer.
The Outlook for SpaceX
In addition to sharing updates on propellant load and flame shield testing, SpaceX continues to deploy satellites with Falcon Heavy, launching a mission just last week. The company has also completed several Starlink launches in the past few months and will fly a mission to the International Space Station with its Dragon spacecraft in August.
However, the investigation into Starship could sideline NASA’s Artemis 3 moon mission, currently planned for 2025. In June, the agency all but blamed SpaceX for the potential delay in its launch timeline.
“They have a significant number of launches to go, and that of course gives me concern about the December of 2025 date,” said Jim Free, associate administrator for exploration systems development at NASA.
To chart the future, SpaceX will need to learn from its past. But so far, it appears the company has been doodling during class. Per CNBC, it did not apply for the proper environmental permits that would allow it to dispose of industrial wastewater in the surrounding area during its recent flame deflector testing. The testing involved a new steel plate, which was added to shield the launchpad from the fireball created by the launch.