On April 20, the most powerful rocket ever flown stood on a launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas, its stainless steel skin gleaming in the sun. Moments later, rocket and launch pad would become fiery debris.
It was the first, disastrous orbital test launch of the SpaceX Starship.
Within seconds of launching, the rocket’s ferocious thrust shattered the concrete pad at SpaceX’s Texas Starbase facility, sending debris flying as far as Port Isabel, a city six miles away. Less than four minutes after launch, it began to tumble across the sky, and then it exploded.
On September 8, the FAA closed its inquiry, citing 63 corrective actions SpaceX would need to take before its second attempt to send Starship to orbit.
“The FAA has approval authority on all commercial launches, and so they are the ones who grant companies launch licenses,” says Wendy Whitman Cobb, a space policy expert and instructor at the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
SpaceX will have to demonstrate to the FAA that the company has successfully completed those 63 corrective actions and then apply for a modified launch license. The actions presumably address the failures of the April launch. It’s key to expanding SpaceX’s launch and Starlink satellite businesses.
This investigation might also provide insights into launch pad construction that could one day help astronauts traveling to and from the moon. That record-breaking power is why it was bizarre that SpaceX chose to launch Starship from a concrete launch pad without features such as flame trenches.
SpaceX could have also used a water deluge system to flood the pad to help mitigate the rocket engines’ heat and acoustic shockwaves.
“You would never normally launch a rocket with that much thrust without having a better designed active mitigation of the plume in the launch environment. Because you worry about the heat and the dynamic forces of the plume breaking materials and creating ejecta,” says University of Central Florida physicist Philip Metzger.
“If the ejecta had hit the launch vehicle in a way that caused the rocket to explode while it was still near the tower, it could have destroyed a lot of infrastructure that would have taken a very long time to rebuild.”
As it was, the April launch blew the launch pad apart and dug a crater “About as deep as a house,” he says. Metzger has been studying the Starship launch and is currently writing a paper about the results.
SpaceX may have a solution-a steel plate that is actively cooled with water to keep it from melting during a rocket launch. As for keeping the next Starship from blowing up in the sky, SpaceX says it found that leaked fuel had ignited inside the Super Heavy Booster.
While neither the FAA nor SpaceX have said where the two are in the process, SpaceX Founder Elon Musk has suggested that his company has completed the corrective tasks, tweeting on September 5, before the FAA announcement, that “Starship is ready to launch, awaiting FAA license approval.”
“That would be my best guess.” If that’s the case, she notes, then SpaceX and the FAA have moved with exceptional speed to get Starship ready for another launch attempt.
Whitman Cobb contrasted SpaceX with its competitor Blue Origin, whose New Shepard rocket remains grounded more than a year after a failed launch on September 12, 2022. Blue Origin is “Still in the FAA investigation mode, and have not been able to launch,” she says.
“They’ve yet to apply for a modified launch license.”
Rapidly reworking Starship and its launch pad doesn’t guarantee the next launch attempt will go flawlessly.
Metzger also notes that the person in charge of getting Starship ready to fly again is William Gerstenmaier, who, before joining SpaceX in 2020, was the former associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations at NASA. “Gerstenmaier is a legend in the space community,” Metzger says.