The Implications of SpaceX’s Second Starship Test Flight

Saturday’s launch again ended in the loss of both Starship stages, prompting another FAA mishap investigation and potential delays to NASA’s Artemis moon mission program.

SpaceX Starship test flight

SpaceX’s Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster take off from the Starbase launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday morning. [Courtesy: SpaceX]

The most powerful rocket ever built is grounded—again.

SpaceX’s massive Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster flew for the second time on Saturday, and the results were a mixed bag. Stage separation—the point at which the spaceship’s maiden voyage in April went off the rails—was a success. But like last time, both the rocket and booster exploded and were lost, prompting another mishap investigation by the FAA. Starship will not be able to fly again until the investigation and a launch license evaluation are concluded.

The 400-foot-tall spacecraft took off from Starbase—SpaceX’s launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, just off the coast of the Gulf of Mexico—Saturday morning after the launch was postponed from Friday. All 33 Raptor engines on the Super Heavy booster fired this time, unlike in April, when a handful of them failed.

Starship’s second test flight successfully debuted a hot-stage separation system, one of “well over 1,000” changes SpaceX made to the design, according to CEO Elon Musk. In hot-stage separation, the upper stage engines are ignited while the booster’s engines are still firing and the two stages remain attached. Previously, the company turned off the booster engines first.

According to SpaceX, Saturday was the first time a vehicle as large as Starship successfully pulled off the technique.

Although the new system achieved its goal, the booster promptly exploded—or experienced a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” in SpaceX parlance—over the Gulf of Mexico, where it was meant to splash down intact. A few minutes later, after the Starship upper stage reached space, SpaceX engineer and livestream host John Insprucker said mission control lost contact with the spacecraft.

“We think we may have lost the second stage,” Insprucker said on the broadcast.

About 47 minutes into SpaceX’s livestream and eight minutes into the flight, as a camera follows the upper stage, an explosion is visible. Insprucker said engineers believed an automated flight termination plan was initiated, though the reason is still unclear. 

Starship had reached about 91 miles in altitude—well past the widely accepted boundary between the atmosphere and space—but was expected to fly more than halfway around the Earth before splashing down off the coast of Hawaii.

“With a test like this, success comes from what we learn, and [Saturday’s] test will help us improve Starship’s reliability as SpaceX seeks to make life multiplanetary,” the company said on Musk’s social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

Starship’s second voyage lasted twice as long as its first, and SpaceX appears to be getting close to nailing stage separation. However, both of the spacecraft’s reusable components were lost. And the behemoth of a rocket is now out of commission while the FAA investigates—again.

“A mishap occurred during the SpaceX Starship OFT-2 launch from Boca Chica, Texas, on Saturday, November 18,” the agency said in a statement. “The anomaly resulted in a loss of the vehicle. No injuries or public property damage have been reported. The FAA will oversee the SpaceX-led mishap investigation to ensure SpaceX complies with its FAA-approved mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements.”

A mishap investigation—which had grounded Starship since April—is standard when a launch does not go as planned. SpaceX will now need to compile a report on what went wrong, as well as actions it can take to ensure the next launch goes smoothly, both of which must be approved by the FAA.

The company will also need to apply for a second license modification in order to add more Starship launches to its manifest, which can involve coordination with other federal agencies such as NASA. 

There is no timeline for either process, but the FAA’s initial mishap investigation opened in April and was closed in September. A modified launch license followed in mid-November.

However, unlike the previous test, a water-cooled steel plate installed beneath Starbase prevented ash and debris from being flung for miles. And having been through the investigation and license evaluation process already, it’s possible SpaceX is able to get through a second round of inquiries more quickly.

Fly Me to the Moon

SpaceX’s “iterative design” or “fail fast, but learn faster” philosophy has allowed the company to make steady progress on its Starlink satellites and Crew Dragon capsules, both of which are launching routinely. It could be argued that’s been the case for Starship so far as well, given the successes the company achieved with Saturday’s launch. 

Still, SpaceX may need to pick up the pace. Musk’s ultimate goal is for Starship to eventually ferry hundreds of humans at a time to the moon, Mars, and beyond. The SpaceX CEO has claimed it will land astronauts on Mars by 2029. Those early arrivals are expected to build a base that could one day support a colony of 1 million on the “Red Planet.” But before Musk turns to other planets, there are projects on Earth riding on his company’s success.

In 2021, NASA picked SpaceX to land humans on the moon for the first time in half a century, contracting it to develop a variant of Starship capable of putting astronauts on the lunar surface. That mission, Artemis III, will be preceded by an uncrewed Starship demonstration flight to the moon and back. It will be followed by the Artemis IV mission, for which SpaceX has already been enlisted.

Simply put, NASA won’t be able to get the U.S. back in the space race without Starship. Already, agency officials are "concerned" about SpaceX’s progress, with one top manager predicting Artemis III will “probably” slide from 2025 to 2026.

Musk and Co. are left with a conundrum. To keep Artemis on schedule, SpaceX will need to conduct more Starship test flights, and fast. But moving too quickly can create outcomes such as Saturday’s, which, despite building on the first flight, caused the FAA to intervene. Then again, there’s little time to waste, and the company won’t be able to learn much about the largest rocket ever built without flying it.

As SpaceX continues to iterate on Starship, the company is also contending with a lawsuit against the FAA, which it joined as a co-defendant in May. The suit, filed by five environmental groups, alleges the regulator wasn’t thorough enough in its assessment of the rocket’s potential impacts on the surrounding wildlife.

Jared Margolis, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a plaintiff in the case, told FLYING the lawsuit is still ongoing. Margolis criticized the FAA’s written reevaluation of Starship’s environmental impact, arguing the agency should have required more of SpaceX before green lighting both test flights. He said the center is considering adding more claims to its suit for the FAA’s failure to fully analyze the impact of April’s launch.

More recently, SpaceX has come under fire for its workplace safety culture, which a special report from Reuters earlier this month characterized as “lax.” According to the report, investigators used government records and interviews to determine there were 600 previously unreported injuries suffered on the job by SpaceX workers—including one death—since 2014. Several U.S. lawmakers have expressed concern about the report’s findings.

While the lawsuit and Reuters investigation did not impact Saturday’s launch, they present more obstacles for SpaceX to overcome before Starship flies to the moon. Another setback could have a ripple effect on America’s space exploration goals.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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