FAA closes mishap investigation and outlines changes SpaceX must make before next Starship launch

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has closed their mishap investigation into SpaceX’s first Starship launch. The mishap investigation, jointly led by SpaceX and monitored by the FAA, has resulted in 63 corrective actions that SpaceX must undertake before it can embark on another mission.

In addition to these steps, SpaceX must also obtain a modified launch license from the FAA, a process that awaits completion, making it clear that a second flight test is not on the immediate horizon.

The corrective actions outlined in the mishap report encompass a range of improvements, including hardware redesigns to prevent leaks and fires, bolstering the launch pad’s resilience, and conducting comprehensive analysis and testing of critical systems and components, notably the Autonomous Flight Safety System.

This Autonomous Flight Safety System played a pivotal role in the April 20 incident, serving as the mechanism to terminate the flight of the Super Heavy rocket and Starship spacecraft when they veered off course and failed to separate as intended. Elon Musk had noted a significant delay in the system’s response during the incident, emphasizing that it “took way too long to rupture the tanks.”

In an update posted to their website on Friday, SpaceX discussed the improvements and changes they have made to Starship since the April launch, including:

  • SpaceX has implemented leak mitigations, improved testing, and expanded the fire suppression system on Super Heavy.
  • The Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS) issued a destruct command when the vehicle deviated from its trajectory, ultimately resulting in the vehicle’s breakup.
  • SpaceX has enhanced and requalified the AFSS for improved reliability.
  • SpaceX is introducing various system performance upgrades, such as a hot-stage separation system and an electronic Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system for Super Heavy Raptor engines.
  • Significant upgrades have been made to the orbital launch mount and pad system to prevent a recurrence of pad foundation failure.

While SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has expressed readiness to launch as soon as FAA approval is granted, it remains uncertain whether all of the necessary corrective actions have been initiated or completed. The FAA has made it clear however that the modified launch license will hinge on SpaceX’s compliance with all safety, environmental, and regulatory requirements, emphasizing the importance of addressing these issues before the next Starship launch.

SpaceX’s ambitious Starship program is designed to carry humans to the moon, Mars, and beyond. The aerospace company continues its iterative development approach, characterized by a cycle of testing, learning from failures, making improvements, and testing again.

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