FAA Completes Mishap Report for Abortive Starship/Super Heavy Orbital Test

The FAA announced completion of its mishap investigation for SpaceX’s abortive Starship/Super Heavy orbital test on April 20. The Starship/Super Heavy stack had suffered a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly only a few minutes into the flight after the first stage failed to separate from the prototype Starship spacecraft. Some first stage rocket engines also failed to activate during the launch.

The FAA reported multiple root causes of the mishap and identified 63 issues that SpaceX needs to fix before it can launch another prototype for a similar test. The issues included 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.

The FAA clarified that completion of the report does not equal approval for another test launch at its facility in Boca Chica, Texas. SpaceX must still go through the application process before it can conduct another test. This echoed a previous FAA warning that it wasn’t going to approve another Starship/Super Heavy launch until SpaceX met its conditions.

Elon Musk was slightly less sharp in his commentary about the regulatory process than normal while acknowledging that SpaceX was just waiting on FAA approval for the next test launch. He had previously estimated that the Starship/Super Heavy prototype could launch in as little as six to eight weeks after the previous abortive test.

Elon Musk says SpaceX has already made several significant changes to the Starship/Super Heavy stack and the launchpad. The changes include a modified procedure for stage separation that is similar to the ones the Russians use for the Soyuz spacecraft.

The launchpad had previously been badly damaged during the attempted orbital test flight and now sports a water deluge system similar to the one that NASA used for Space Shuttle launches. The water deluge system is meant to help neutralize any heat, sound, and vibrations that can damage a launchpad.

(Of course, environmental regulators complained about THAT, too. They say SpaceX failed to obtain proper licensing for the deluge system, which requires a way to control the release of pollutants that might be left behind when the water boils off.)

SpaceX began making changes to the management for Starship/Super Heavy development even before the abortive test flight. It added direct supervisory roles to the list of duties for SpaceX President Gwynn Shotwell and Vice President Mark Juncosa in November 2022. It also hired former NASA Commercial Crew Program chief Kathy Lueders as Starship’s general manager.

The application process for the previous attempt at an orbital test took nearly two years, with the number of comments received and environmental impact report requirements accounting for some of the delays. Even with the amount of time it took, environmentalist groups alleged that the FAA was too hasty in its approval in a lawsuit they filed. The FAA and SpaceX have requested that the lawsuit be dismissed.

As usual with anything involving space launches or an Elon Musk-run company, things don’t always go as desired or even as fast as Musk would like. However, as usual, excitement is guaranteed.