SCIENCE & TECH: SpaceX Needs to Make 63 Fixes Before Next Starship Launch, FAA Orders
The next giant Starship rocket from Elon Musk’s SpaceX is standing on the launching pad in South Texas. But the Federal Aviation Administration said on Friday that the company must undertake “corrective actions” before it would issue a launch license for the second flight.
A Number That Sums It Up: 63 Corrective Actions
The first Starship test flight successfully lifted off on April 20. A few minutes later, it started to tumble out of control and then ended in an explosion induced by its flight termination system, which is designed to prevent out-of-control rockets from crashing into a populated area. The rocket reached an altitude of 24 miles above the Gulf of Mexico, far short of reaching orbit, although SpaceX employees popped champagne in celebration of what the flight managed to accomplish.
“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,” the SpaceX update said. “This led to a loss of communications to the majority of booster engines and, ultimately, control of the vehicle.”
The launch also caused substantial damage to the launchpad, blasting pieces of concrete into the surrounding areas and kicking up clouds of dirt that reached a small town six miles from the launch site.
The F.A.A. said the 63 corrective actions described in the final investigation report included redesigns of the rocket to prevent leaks and fires and additional analysis and testing of safety systems including the flight termination system.
It also called for improvements to the launchpad. SpaceX spent several months adding a large steel plate and a water-deluge system to minimize damage caused by liftoff.
The investigation report is not being released publicly because it includes propriety information belonging to SpaceX and also data restricted by United States export controls, the F.A.A. said.
None of the 63 corrective actions will be a surprise to SpaceX because the company conducted the investigation, identifying the causes of the failures that occurred during the April launch and what needed to be fixed. The F.A.A. reviewed the SpaceX report and concurred with the company’s findings and closed the investigation.
What the Last Launch Looked Like
Video by SpaceX captured the massive rocket’s liftoff and the moment when the rocket began to tumble out of control before it blew up.
Other footage showed the scale of the dirt and debris cloud kicked up by the launch.
Background: Musk’s moon and Mars rocket quest
Starship, sitting on top of the SuperHeavy booster stage, is the largest rocket ever made, an essential piece for Mr. Musk’s vision of setting up a colony on Mars. The rocket is designed to be fully reusable. The booster, after providing thrust for the first few minutes of the flight, is to fall away and land at the launchpad. The upper Starship section then continues to orbit. It too can return to Earth, belly-flopping through the atmosphere before pivoting to a vertical orientation for landing.
As part of its Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon, NASA has hired SpaceX to build a version of Starship to take its astronauts from lunar orbit to the surface of the moon. The first moon landing, during the Artemis III mission, is currently scheduled for late December 2025. But that schedule will almost certainly slip. SpaceX first has to perform an uncrewed demonstration landing.
What’s Next: Another test flight of the giant rocket
On Tuesday, Mr. Musk posted on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter that he owns, “Starship is ready to launch, awaiting FAA license approval.”
The closing of the investigation of the April launch does not mean the next launch is imminent, the F.A.A. said.
“SpaceX must implement all corrective actions that impact public safety and apply for and receive a license modification from the FAA that addresses all safety, environmental and other applicable regulatory requirements prior to the next Starship launch,” the agency said.
Environmental groups have sued the F.A.A. calling for a more extensive review of the effects of the Starship launches. The case is still in its preliminary stages.
SpaceX did not set a target date for the second launch.