The FAA’s mishap investigation following Starship’s first launch may take several months to complete, following SpaceX’s first orbital launch attempt flight test of the giant moon rocket prototype on April 20.
Such an investigation is standard procedure following such accidents, and for now any future testing is grounded. Such investigations can take from a few weeks to several months to complete, according to the FAA.
As we reported from on-site at the launch, it was no shock that the rocket itself was blown up in its ascent. SpaceX and Elon Musk even expected it, as is the nature of a new flight test program. However, they did not expect such destruction of their launch pad, which basically blew up and sent debris in all directions because there was no flame trench or sufficient sound suppression system in place.
This was no secret either, as Musk had publicly stated previously that not using a flame trench could be a mistake.
But installing one is not as easy as just breaking ground and doing it. The water table at the pad is too shallow for a traditional flame trench. Doing so would require working with regulators and the Army Corps of Engineers, and would take a significant amount of time.
SpaceX opted not to pursue that avenue, and instead proceeded to launch. As far as anyone knows, the rocket was as ready as it could be, but the lack of a means to deflect the energy from the most powerful rocket in history would prove to be an error.
Of course yes, it’s the first flight test, and everything that happens is useful data that will aid furthering the design of the ground systems and flight hardware. You can read more on some of the questions raised following the launch test in our report HERE.
As the skyscraper-size stack roared to life the 33 engines were pummeling the ground directly and sending debris in all directions. Chunks of concrete with rebar, engineering cameras, random plumbing, ground support infrastructure and much more cratered the surrounding area, beaches and dunes.
But debris cleanup and rebuilding their pad may be the least of their concerns. Questions about the environmental impact on the local habitats and endangered wildlife are being discussed, as well impacts on local towns. Protected birds and sea turtle nesting share the land together. Last year, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife report said SpaceX’s activities at Starbase had “significantly impacted” and reduced the bird populations surrounding them.
The aftermath had a much greater impact on the surrounding region too than SpaceX believed would occur, outlined in their environmental assessment submitted to the FAA to secure the launch license.
Locals in nearby Port Isabel and South Padre Island were posting photos and videos on social media of dust and dirt settled on their homes and vehicles like ash, as well as broken windows from the powerful concussive sound waves, which hit harder than NASA’s Artemis SRBs.
A sandstorm was observed on radar stretching several miles from all the dust, dirt and debris that the liftoff caused. And U.S. Fish and Wildlife confirmed that the launch caused a 3.5 acre brush fire.
Part of the FAA’s investigation is to identify what all happened and ensure that “any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety,” says the FAA.
The agency also notes that they are initiating an “anomaly response plan” and are coordinating with local wildlife officials.
SpaceX has been silent and not commenting on the launch other than to say it was a success. Musk has not said much either, but admits they need some kind of suppression system in place so destroying the launch pad doesn’t happen again.
The debris being thrown off the ground at ignition damaged several engines, so when the rocket launched several were already out of commission. Several more went out on ascent.
Such is the nature of testing, but using a flame trench is a big lesson learned. And despite the more, passionate, fans online, no SpaceX won’t be launching Super Heavies off the moon and Mars. Some have suggested that SpaceX “can’t use flame trenches on the moon and that’s why they didn’t use one at Starbase.”
But doing so is not new. NASA figured out how to land on and launch off the moon half a century ago. Several times.
And surely SpaceX and Starship will too. NASA is depending on it, since the space agency is giving SpaceX over $1 billion to develop a lunar lander variant of Starship for their Artemis missions and Orion spacecraft and orbiting lunar gateway.
But there is not a backup lander or second option; if Starship is not ready when Artemis III is, then there won’t be a moon landing until it is ready.
“Every great achievement throughout history has demanded some level of calculated risk, because with great risk comes great reward,” said NASA administrator Bill Belson following the launch. “Looking forward to all that SpaceX learns, to the next flight test—and beyond.”
When that test will be, who knows. But it sure won’t be in a couple months, even if the rocket and Starship for the next test – and that steel water plate – are ready.