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  • Writer's pictureSarah Brightmann

FAA Suspends Starship Operations Until SpaceX Addresses 63 'Corrective Actions'

SpaceX's most recent Starship test launch appears to be its last in the foreseeable future. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has officially concluded its investigation into the mishap that occurred in April, determining that SpaceX cannot resume test launches until it addresses a comprehensive list of 63 "corrective actions" for its launch system.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk humorously noted, "The vehicle’s structural margins appear to be better than we expected," following the late April test launch. However, a report from the US Fish and Wildlife Service revealed the extent of the damage caused by the failed launch, including a 385-acre debris field, concrete fragments propelled over 2,600 feet from the launchpad, a 3.5-acre wildfire, and a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that spread material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the pad site.

The FAA's directive for corrective actions encompasses a range of measures, including hardware redesigns to prevent leaks and fires, enhancements to the launch pad's robustness, more rigorous reviews in the design process, thorough analysis and testing of safety-critical systems and components, particularly the Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS), and the application of additional change control practices. Moreover, SpaceX must not only complete these tasks but also seek and obtain a license modification that addresses all safety, environmental, and regulatory requirements before the next Starship launch. In essence, SpaceX is in the phase of addressing the identified issues.

In response to the FAA's announcement, SpaceX released a blog post, indirectly acknowledging the situation. The post highlighted the lessons learned from Starship's first flight test and credited the company's "rapid iterative development approach" for contributing to upgrades in both the vehicle and ground infrastructure.

SpaceX did acknowledge a delay of 40 seconds in the operation of its Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS), which is designed to terminate a rocket's flight when it deviates from its intended path but before reaching the ground. While the cause of this delay was not disclosed, SpaceX has since improved and requalified the AFSS to enhance system reliability.

The company is also implementing a series of system performance upgrades unrelated to the issues observed during the first flight test. These upgrades include a new hot-stage separation system for more efficient decoupling of the first and second stages, a new electronic Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system for its Raptor heavy rockets, and significant enhancements to the orbital launch mount and pad system. Notably, these improvements do not appear to overlap with the 63 corrective actions imposed by the FAA, as the agency had not publicly disclosed its list of corrective measures at the time of this publication.

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