FAA demands 17 ‘corrective actions’ from SpaceX in Starship mishap investigation

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This undated photo provided by SpaceX shows the company’s Starship rocket at the launch site in Boca Chica, Texas. (SpaceX via AP)

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Monday that it has closed a SpaceX-led mishap investigation into the Nov. 18 Starship-Super Heavy orbital flight attempt from Boca Chica.

The test flight successfully launched and achieved stage separation, though the Super Heavy booster rocket (stage one) automatically self-destructed shortly afterward, the stage-two Starship following suit several minutes later, before reaching orbit.

The FAA said it accepts the root causes and 17 corrective actions that SpaceX identified and documented in its mishap report. Seven corrective actions were identified as necessary for the 33-engine Super Heavy, including vehicle hardware redesigns, upgraded control-system modeling, reevaluation of engine analyses based on flight data from the test flight, and updated engine-control algorithms, according to the FAA.

The agency said 10 corrective actions were identified for the six-engine Starship, including vehicle hardware redesigns, operational changes, flammability analysis updates, installation of additional fire protection, and guidance and modeling updates.

After a successful ascent and stage separation early the morning of Nov. 18, Super Heavy BN9 ran into trouble during its “boost-back burn” (to reverse the booster’s course for landing), resulting in a midair explosion and loss of the vehicle, the FAA said. Starship SN25 successfully started its six engines, separated from the booster, and began a planned liquid-oxygen propellant dump before shutting off its engines.

“Over the next minute, several explosions and sustained fires were observed in onboard camera aft video streams, ultimately resulting in a loss of communication between the forward and aft flight computers,” the FAA reported. “This resulted in a commanded shut-down of all six engines, and an Autonomous Flight Safety System flight termination triggering at (7:10:55 a.m.) per flight safety rules.”

The agency defined the launch as a mishap per Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and required SpaceX to conduct the mishap investigation.

“The FAA has been provided with sufficient information and accepts the root causes and corrective actions described in the mishap reports,” the agency said. “Consequently, the FAA considers the mishap investigation that SpaceX was required to complete to be concluded.”

This was SpaceX’s second orbital flight attempt with Starship. The first took place on April 20, 2023, beginning with a successful liftoff and ascent but ending when stage-separation failed to occur and Starship-Super Heavy exploding far above the Gulf of Mexico compliments of onboard flight-termination systems. The reinforced concrete launch pad at Boca Chica was also destroyed during liftoff.

Closure of the investigation into the Nov. 18 test flight does not mean SpaceX is immediately authorized to make a third Starship orbital flight attempt attempt from Boca Chica, the FAA emphasized.

“Prior to the next launch, SpaceX must implement all corrective actions and receive a license modification from the FAA that addresses all safety, environmental and other applicable regulatory requirements,” the agency said. “The FAA is evaluating SpaceX’s license modification request and expects SpaceX to submit additional required information before a final determination can be made.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX has requested a waiver from the FAA in order to conduct at least nine Starship launches from Boca Chica per year, as opposed to the five launches per year the FAA has already approved (as long as SpaceX meets the agency’s requirements for each launch).

Kevin Coleman, FAA administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, told reporters earlier this month that SpaceX is “looking at a pretty aggressive launch schedule this year.”

“We’ve been talking to SpaceX constantly around the clock, coming together and trying to figure out how do we do this,” he was quoted as saying. “We’re invested with the company, and so we’ll work with them to get them back (flying) as soon as they can.”