FAA Slaps SpaceX With 63 Corrective Actions Following Botched Starship Megarocket Launch

Starship during its fatal tumble on April 20, 2023.Photo: Eric Gay (AP)

By George Dvorsky,
Published by Gizmodo, 8 September 2023

Elon Musk’s aerospace company must address these corrective actions to the regulator’s satisfaction should it wish to acquire its next Starship launch license.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has officially closed its investigation into the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s in-development megarocket, Starship. The company must now implement 63 corrective measures to secure its next Starship launch license from the FAA.

Starship’s maiden launch, which took place on April 20, was marred by several missteps, including excessive damage at the launch mount, the scattering of debris and dust over the surrounding regiondisruption of local wildlifesmall wildfire ignitions, and a dangerously flawed self-destruct sequence. The megarocket flew for roughly four minutes before entering into a fatal tumble, and with the self-destruct sequence not immediately resulting in the disintegration of the Starship prototype.

The FAA’s final report highlighted “multiple root causes” of the flawed launch, specifying 63 corrective actions that SpaceX must implement to prevent similar incidents in future launches. These actions entail a redesign of the vehicle’s hardware to prevent leaks and fires, and a modification of the launch pad to boost its resilience—a change SpaceX appears to have made following the April 20 launch; these changes include steel reinforcements beneath the launch mount and a new water deluge system to quell the power of Starship’s 33 Raptor engines. That said, these changes will likely undergo a subsequent FAA review.

SpaceX engineers stacked the 400-foot-tall (122-meter-tall) rocket this past Tuesday, and it now stands ready for its second launch, awaiting FAA approval.

Other corrective measures stipulated in the report include the “incorporation of additional reviews in the design process,” increasing analysis and testing of safety-critical systems such as the Autonomous Flight Safety System (the self-destruct system), and added change control practices (i.e. the managing of system changes to keep things stable and to prevent unexpected issues).

The FAA closely monitored SpaceX’s investigation to ensure compliance with the approved plan, while NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board were granted official observer status. Importantly, the federal regulator only gave SpaceX a one-shot launch license for Starship. If SpaceX hopes to launch again, it must demonstrate that it has made the necessary fixes. And should the FAA eventually give the thumbs up, SpaceX has to stick to what it promised in its application.

The FAA made it clear in its statement that wrapping up the mishap investigation doesn’t greenlight an immediate resumption of Starship launches at Boca Chica, Texas. As the FAA made crystal clear in its statement:

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.

Regarding the mishap investigation report, the FAA clarified that the details must remain confidential due to the presence of proprietary data and U.S. Export Control rules. The regulator advised directing further inquiries to SpaceX. This is easier said than done; extracting information from the aerospace manufacturer is always a challenge, given its hesitancy to engage with the media. That said, Gizmodo contacted SpaceX for details on the 63 corrective actions but received no response prior to publication.

SpaceX’s Starship stands at the forefront of the company’s aspirations for space exploration. This fully reusable spacecraft, designed to transport both crew and cargo, aims at missions ranging from deploying satellites to landing on Mars. CEO Elon Musk envisions Starship as a critical tool in achieving his dream of establishing a sustainable human colony on Mars and progressing towards a multiplanetary existence. NASA, on the other hand, plans to use Starship as a human landing vehicle for its upcoming Artemis missions to the Moon.

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