SpaceX Starship ready to fly again! But when?
SpaceX Starship ready, says Musk. FAA disagrees.
Space fans got excited last week about a possible late-week launch of SpaceX’s Starship, the world’s tallest and most powerful rocket. It would have been the second launch of a Starship; the first one launched successfully but ended in a “rapid unscheduled disassembly” – an explosion – over the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2023.
The excitement for the second launch of Starship was based in part on maritime warnings for both in the Gulf of Mexico, and near Hawaii. And – thrilling spaceflight fans, company CEO Elon Musk had announced on Wednesday (September 6, 2023) – via the social media platform formerly known as Twitter – that everything was in order.
Then paperwork intervened …
Starship is ready to launch, awaiting FAA license approval https://t.co/WjENkdudo9
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) September 6, 2023
63 corrective actions needed
Starship must have FAA approval to launch. And the FAA finally broke its silence on Friday (September 8, 2023). On the day some were hoping to see Starship’s second flight, we instead got a statement from the FAA, saying SpaceX has a lot of work left to do:
The final report cites multiple root causes of the April 20, 2023, mishap and 63 corrective actions SpaceX must take to prevent mishap reoccurrence.
SpaceX, the agency said, needed a safer approach to testing its monster rocket:
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.
For its part, SpaceX said in a quickly-issued response (also September 8, 2023) that it is already taking steps to address the FAA’s concerns. The company said it learned “numerous lessons” from the first flight.
And SpaceX said in its September 8 statement that the company must maintain its breakneck pace. It said that rapid pace is key to the company’s success:
This rapid iterative development approach has been the basis for all of SpaceX’s major innovative advancements, including Falcon, Dragon, and Starlink.
What went wrong the 1st time?
SpaceX also gave a rundown of how its first attempt to get Starship to orbit went wrong. From the moment the engines ignited, there were problems that continued until the vehicle finally exploded about 39 km (24 miles) over the Gulf of Mexico.
The company provided a brief timeline of the flight and how they’re going to prevent a repeat of its mishaps:
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.
Also addressed was the disintegration of a massive reinforced concrete slab under the launchpad during liftoff. SpaceX’s new fire suppression system will prevent another “storm of concrete” during the next test flight.
SpaceX also made significant upgrades to the orbital launch mount and pad system in order to prevent a recurrence of the pad foundation failure observed during the first flight test. These upgrades include significant reinforcements to the pad foundation and the addition of a flame deflector, which SpaceX has successfully tested multiple times.
Watch for falling rockets soon!
But plans are definitely in the works. Last Tuesday (September 5, 2023), Starship 25 was joined to Booster 9.
And, days earlier, the U.S. Coast Guard issued a warning (PDF) for ships sailing in the Gulf of Mexico near Boca Chica and Brownsville, Texas. Crews needed to watch for falling space stuff as early as September 8, 2023.
Sailors, they said, should keep a weather eye for dropping debris. Maybe whole rocketships!
Navigational hazards from rocket launching activity may include free falling debris and/or descending vehicles or vehicle components, under various means of control.
Another warning for sailors (PDF) was issued for areas near Hawaii, where the Starship second stage will splash down … if it flies. The Coast Guard said that from 13:00 to 19:00 UTC (3 a.m. to 9 a.m. HST) on Friday, north and west of Hawaii, there is …
…the potential for falling debris due to space operations.
But then news of the delays broke and the Coast Guard issued an update.
The rocket launch scheduled for September 8, 2023, in the vicinity of Boca Chica Beach, TX., has been postponed. New rocket launch dates will
be advertised by U.S. Coast Guard Sector Corpus Christi, and can be found at: https://www.cameroncountytx.gov/spacex/.
Not so fast, Elon!
The previous attempt in April 2023 to get Starship to orbit ended in a bang. It also added RUD – rapid unscheduled disassembly – to the list of nerdy things space geeks like to say. (NASA, behind the times as usual, has yet to add RUD to its glossary.)
Many who watch Starship’s development closely weren’t convinced the next flight would come until the end of the month at earliest. And they say the RUD is to blame.
SpaceX filed its final “mishap report” about the failure of the April 20, 2023, launch just three weeks ago, reports PayloadSpace.com. They included a statement from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) saying Starship isn’t going anywhere until the agency says it is OK.
When a final mishap report is approved, it will identify the corrective actions SpaceX must make. Separately, SpaceX must modify its license to incorporate those actions before receiving authorization to launch again.
Then Ars Technica’s senior rocket reporter, Eric Berger, reported the FAA review is ongoing as of Wednesday (September 6).
Just now the FAA says the Starship mishap investigation remains open. pic.twitter.com/mjX7lsH3PN
— Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) September 6, 2023
He predicts no second test flight until the end of September or later.
Bottom line: SpaceX Starship appeared to be ready for another attempt at an orbital test flight late last week. But paperwork intervened.