SpaceX submits mishap report: FAA to decide ‘corrective actions’ after launch fail

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A view of SpaceX Starship from Texas State Highway 48 as the rocket launches from Boca Chica/Starbase April 20, 2023, exploding soon after liftoff. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Four months after SpaceX’s first orbital flight test of Starship-Super Heavy ended in a high-altitude explosion over the Gulf of Mexico, the company has submitted a mishap report to the Federal Aviation Administration on what went wrong.

The news was first reported by on Aug. 15. Starship SN24 and Super Heavy BN7 were destroyed by an onboard autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) four minutes after the launch from Boca Chica on April 20, after the two stages of the rocket failed to separate and the vehicle veered out of control.

The Starship was meant to detach from Super Heavy shortly after launch, orbit once around the Earth and splash down off the coast of Hawaii, while the Super Heavy was supposed to splash down in the Gulf about 20 miles offshore.

The orbital launchpad was obliterated as a result of the launch, unable to withstand the thrust of Super Heavy’s 30-plus rocket engines. Large and small chunks of reinforced concrete were thrown in every direction, many pieces landing in the dunes, on the beach and in the surf at Boca Chica, while Port Isabel was coated in a blanket of pulverized concrete dust thrown into the air.

Large concrete debris can be seen scattered throughout Boca Chica Beach as SpaceX crew continue to clean up debris Tuesday afternoon, April 25, 2023, after the April 20 launch of Starship-Super Heavy extensively damaged the launch pad area. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

Steel plates that SpaceX had intended to place under the launch mount to protect the launchpad were not installed by the launch date. The company’s founder/CEO, Elon Musk said on April 29 that this corrected by the next orbital launch attempt. The FAA immediately grounded further launch activity at Boca Chica pending its investigation of the incident, though SpaceX deemed the April 20 test successful in light of the fact that the rocket made it off the launch pad. With SpaceX’s mishap report now in hand, the FAA can move forward with its review.

“When a final mishap report is approved it will identify the corrective actions SpaceX must make,” the agency said in a statement to “Separately, SpaceX must modify its license to incorporate those actions before receiving authorization to launch again.”

During the months the FAA has been awaiting the mishap report, SpaceX has been rebuilding and upgrading the launchpad in anticipation of eventually receiving approval for another attempt. The changes include a new water-deluge system that shoots massive plumes of water from under the launch mount just before ignition to dampen the impact of the blast and protect the launchpad.

The system was tested on Aug. 6 with a static-fire engine test of a new Super Heavy booster (BN9) and appeared to work, causing an enormous eruption of steam as the flames hit the water as opposed to the usual billowing fire and dust. Musk also said on April 29 that the AFTS took long — about 40 seconds — to destroy the nearly 400-foot-tall rocket, which means SpaceX obviously needs to come up with something more reliable before it launches from Boca Chica again.

Hundreds of spectators park on the side of the road along Texas State Highway 48 to catch a glimpse of SpaceX’s Starship launch Thursday morning, April 20, 2023, at their Starbase facility near Boca Chica Beach. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

A group opposed to SpaceX’s activities at Boca Chica would like to see to it that another launch never happens. Plaintiffs including the American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, Save RGV and the Surfrider Foundation filed suit against the FAA following the April 20 launch for allegedly “failing to fully analyze and mitigate the environmental harms resulting from the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy launch program at Boca Chica.”

They’re calling on the FAA to conduct a more rigorous Environmental Impact Statement on the Boca Chica Starship program as opposed to the less comprehensive and time-consuming Programmatic Environmental Assessment that the FAA did perform, the results of which were released in September 2022.

The FAA and SpaceX are seeking to have the lawsuit dismissed.