Starship Grounded Until Launch Destruction Probed


The FAA has grounded SpaceX’s Starship program while it investigates last week’s explosive test launch of the full system. This time, however, the agency appears to be at least as interested in the scorched mess left behind by the booster as it is the explosion that was triggered a few minutes later when the second stage failed to separate from the main booster. The agency told CNBC that SpaceX won’t be allowed to try again until it’s satisfied “any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety.” 

The FAA and other departments are now trying to figure out if Thursday’s attempt harmed people, animals and the environment in general. The main concern is whether the massive dust plume that erupted when the 33 rockets on the booster blew the launch pad to pieces contained toxic particles that settled over a wide area. Any “anomaly” with the launch wasn’t supposed spread debris more than a mile from the pad, but residents of Port Isabel and South Padre Island, about six miles away, reported their property coated in dust and ash.

After the launch attempt, SpaceX CEO took to his Twitter site to explain that they hadn’t quite finished the launch pad. “3 months ago, we started building a massive water-cooled, steel plate to go under the launch mount. Wasn’t ready in time & we wrongly thought, based on static fire data, that Fondag would make it through 1 launch,” he tweeted. “Looks like we can be ready to launch again in 1 to 2 months.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. And if the water filled steel plate doesn’t work then flame trenches and water sound suppression as used by NASA would be the appropriate fix. On the steel plate, I wonder if that system has been realistically tested.

  2. In other words:
    In a desperate attempt to appear to be in charge and relevant a government bureaucracy that is supposed to promote AVIATION safety falls back on the environmental crutch to interfere with a company headed by someone they REALLY don’t like. Much bowing and scraping will be required before the company performing unheard-of miracles will be allowed to do what it intends to do anyway.

    • AMEN!

      Sure is a nice rocket company you got there. Sure would be nice if you would stay in your lane and not blow open government censorship conspiracies with your meddling with the birdie company.

    • Actually, pretty clear that significant corners were cut in the interest of meeting a launch timetable. Sometimes it’s financially rational for companies to do things like this, but when it potentially harms others, it’s the FAA’s role to step in with its regulatory authority. The FAA isn’t out of line here, and this wasn’t an unforeseeable problem from an engineering perspective.

    • Seems like a bit of a stretch. They destroyed their pad and also many other things for miles around – and they suspected they would beforehand. It seems completely within the scope of the FAA to want to make sure it isn’t going thrash the area a second time before launching again.
      Plus it’s not like they’re going back up there anytime soon!

  3. In other words, SpaceEx admits the launch pad wasn’t ready but to you it’s an FAA conspiracy. Sheesh.

  4. The FAA is wrong often, and arrogant more often than not. But, they are spot-on this time. If I lived six miles away and my property was coated in this gunk, I would expect government intervention in Elon’s Follies.

  5. I’m still trying to understand how an in-depth structural analysis would not have revealed this was a real possibility.

    As for the FAA, maybe they should have jumped in sooner and could be viewed as being too lax.

    • I suspect the actual engineers (or at least some of them) knew this could be a possibility. It is just physics, after all. But they were likely silenced by others above them.

    • Elon Musk’s own engineers strongly advised the use of a flame trench and water suppression systems. Musk overrode them.

  6. What I really don’t get is why the FAA is involved at all. Their role in space exploration should be about the same as that of the Coast Guard: make sure spacecraft don’t pose a threat to air traffic. That’s it. The only place the FAA’s mandate touches space is airspace safety. How on earth did they end up doing environmental reviews, investigating launch failures of obviously experimental spacecraft, and issuing launch licenses?

    NASA should be the agency to oversee commercial space flight. They’re the agency that actually has the expertise to review and intelligently comment. No, they’re not constituted as a regulatory body, but they’re the ones with the knowledge base to reasonably regulate space travel.

    • I also agree. IMHO, the FAA’s intention is to get to zero accidents even if it means regulating the aviation industry to zero operations. Space flight has always been about pushing the envelope and when we do this it has risks of injury and death.

    • NASA isn’t a regulatory agency, and space launches go through the airspace, drop debris on people on the ground. It’s an appropriate role for FAA.

    • Yes, the FAA is primarily in place for airspace safety, but all government agencies like this overlap into general public safety, which is not unreasonable, just like you can’t buzz your neighborhood 200 feet above homes. I don’t have a problem with this. Besides, when you are talking about a rocket, the launch facility is like part of the aircraft that simply gets left behind like the winch line launching a glider.

    • I completely agree, ssokol! The FAA has demonstrated a woeful lack of ability to perform the tasks Congress already assigned to them. How is growing this over-sized bureaucracy further helpful or in the taxpayers best interest? NASA, or even the USAF Space Command, could do a much better job here. For example, when the President “moves”, Homeland Security “coordinates” with FAA and I see no reason why a similar approach would not work here. If having Congressionally mandated regulatory power is the issue, perhaps we could bring in the CDC or the Forestry Service? Get real! If NASA needs regulatory authority, that will be a minor detail.

  7. On the other hand NASA has past data and experience with large booster launches and the ground precautions involved. Looks like SpaceX was cutting corners and now it may come back to bite them in the behind.

    • No one has past data and experience with anything this big and powerful. Their launch platform probably has a tragic flaw from an early design decision and will need a REALLY good flame diverter system redesign. It will likely happen at astonishing speed if the bureaucrats stand aside. The development of a heavy-lift reusable launch vehicle is worthy of forgiveness for a few mistakes. It didn’t hurt anyone, it didn’t cost the taxpayers much if anything and it followed the approved trajectory until it deviated and then the flight termination system brought it down safely. “Oh, look at this mess you made” is a bit petty considering.

      • The two space vehicles most similar to Starship are the Apollo/Saturn V and the Russion N1 rocket. The Saturn V F1 engines individually were more powerful than the Raptor engines in Starship’s first stage, so as far as individual engine thrust goes, we have plenty of experience with that. Of course, Starship has more total thrust than the Saturn V. Starship’s first stage is closer to the N1, which also had 30 individual engines, and they failed to get to orbit because it was too complex at the time to run that many engines.

        So do we have experience and data with launch vehicles with exactly this amount of thrust? No, but we have experience and data with vehicles in the same general class.

        Of concern is that it seemed like there was no launch escape method available with Starship. It was clear that the booster was departing controlled flight, so I would have expected to see Starship separate from the booster, but it didn’t. It would have been a good test of a real-world launch abort.

  8. He admitted that the launch pad for this gigantic rocket wasn’t ready, and he probably lied about the “static fire data” as well, whatever that is. He likes to use buzzwords to conceal. Elon lies all the time about everything.

      • Elon attracts these kinds of fans, who, if they were to actually meet him, he wouldn’t give 2 seconds of attention.

          • Elon attracts both enemies and fans, in spades. One of the downsides of this attraction is that those of us who are neither enemies, nor fans, but have (we would say) valid technical kudos or critiques are pigeon holed into one camp or the other. This it is hard to have a rational discussion due to all the blind love/hate that crowds in.

    • ““static fire data” as well, whatever that is.”

      Static fire data is data collected during test firing – is that so complicated?

  9. Even given the brain drain NASA has experienced over the past 20 – 30 years, they are still the alphabet administration to handle this issue. At least NASA had brains to drain.

  10. Quick review..SpaceX employs thousands of people and creates billions of dollars of economic activity in South Texas and elsewhere . SpaceX put Americans back into space, without us paying Russia , for the first time in a decade. SpaceX is launching a satellite internet constellation and is reliably and cost effectively putting up satellites vital to our national security. SpaceX created the only reusable rocket systems in history.

    On the other hand..The newly woke FAA has presided over half a dozen near catastrophic airliner collisions. “Oversaw” Boeing allowing the 737 Max disaster. Allowed the NOTAM system to fail causing all stop to airline operations and was almost run by an administrator with ZERO aviation knowledge or experience.

    SpaceX will fix its StarShip and launch facility, the FAA will plod along into mediocrity.

    • Exactly. The FAA hasn’t done anything to advance aerospace technology in decades. Stand in the way. Were allow antiques to continue to be built by Boeing. Or allow Boeing to come up with new ideas completely uninvestigated by themselves.

  11. No flame deflector or water deluge sound suppression system? I guess Elon the genius missed the memo from the last 60 years of rocket launches. Maybe the largest rocket ever launched didn’t really need it.

  12. Quick review..SpaceX employs thousands of people and creates billions of dollars of economic activity in South Texas and elsewhere . SpaceX put Americans back into space, without us paying Russia , for the first time in a decade. SpaceX is launching a satellite internet constellation and is reliably and cost effectively putting up satellites vital to our national security. SpaceX created the only reusable rocket systems in history.

    On the other hand..The newly woke FAA has presided over half a dozen near catastrophic airliner collisions. “Oversaw” Boeing allowing the 737 Max disaster.

  13. Both FAA and NASA oversight of this launch seems to have been lax. Hopefully that will change after this major failure with seemingly unanticipated consequences.

  14. Elon moved his operations and headquarters to Texas for a reason. In Texas, the rules for the rich aren’t different, because they don’t have any rules.

    • Oh, so now it is Texas’ fault that the launch platform was not properly designed? Please tell me which state has any regulatory agencies that would overrule the FAA or NASA on rocket launch technology. (Spoiler alert; None of them) Also, I’m fairly sure that the “rules” for rich people are pretty much the same in all of the 50 states.

  15. FYI John, most states wouldn’t want SpaceX launching rockets in their state. Other states would insist the necessary infrastructure was in place before the launch site could be developed. Some states would control the development around the site area to ensure their citizens weren’t subject to concrete showers. Some states have pesky environmental rules and safety standards for construction projects. Texas is not a big believer in any of these.

  16. I don’t really see any legitimate criticism of this decision in these comments, just what might be personality cultists trashing the FAA for even being involved. What do you propose? Commercial launches clearly need some oversight and the FAA, this one is proof enough of that. The FAA, however flawed it may be, is already the agency that handles the airspace the rockets use; from the rules about marking their towering launch sites to their exit of used airspace. Do you want another new 3 letter agency mucking around? I have no love for the FAA but let’s not create another one.

    You can’t just let Musk’s sometimes questionable decision making go unfettered with massive and extremely dangerous rockets, this man insisted that he launch the largest rocket in existence from a concrete gazebo with no suppression or flame diverter, for no reason other than because it was more convenient and cheaper to launch it sooner. It was an obviously bad decision to anyone in the industry who doesn’t just assume that the rich man must know best, considering we’ve been using suppression systems and flame trenches on every major launch for the past 50+ years. The unsuppressed acoustic battering and copious flying debris may well have been responsible for the cascade of engine failures that the rocket had, which may be what eventually required it to be remotely destroyed. Furthermore, it is obviously unacceptable that the shoddy construction resulted in pulverized launchpad dust wafting to surrounding communities, when spacex had agreed to the restrictions on impact to the environment and surrounding areas. This grounding is totally reasonable, in my educated opinion.