FAA closes investigation of SpaceX's Starship rocket launch mishap, 63 fixes needed

a rocket launches into a gray sky
SpaceX's first integrated Starship and Super Heavy launch into the sky from Starbase at Boca Chica, Texas on April 20, 2023. (Image credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX Starship Second Flight Test Update: SpaceX launched its Starship rocket and Super Heavy booster on its second flight test on Nov. 18, 2023, but the vehicles exploded during flight. Read our coverage for full details and video.


The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has closed its investigation into the debut flight of SpaceX's giant Starship vehicle, which ended with a bang in April.

The investigation — which SpaceX led and the FAA oversaw — identified "multiple root causes" of the April 20 launch failure and 63 corrective actions the company "must take to prevent mishap reoccurrence," FAA officials said in an emailed statement today (Sept. 8).

The end of the investigation marks a major step toward the second-ever Starship test flight, which SpaceX wants to launch soon from its Starbase site near the South Texas town of Boca Chica. But, FAA officials stressed, it doesn't clear the path completely.

"The closure of the mishap investigation does not signal an immediate resumption of Starship launches at Boca Chica," they said in today's 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."

RelatedRelive SpaceX's explosive 1st Starship test in incredible launch photos

Starship Die Cast Rocket Model Now $69.99 on Amazon. 

Starship Die Cast Rocket Model <a href="https://target.georiot.com/Proxy.ashx?tsid=72128&GR_URL=https%3A%2F%2Famazon.com%2Fwltk-SpaceX-Starship-Diecast-Rocket%2Fdp%2FB0BX3WVBTL%2Fref%3Dsr_1_2%3Fcrid%3DT7YR9VPWSYSD%26keywords%3Dspacex%252Bstarship%26qid%3D1681987946%26sprefix%3Dspacex%252Bstarship%252Caps%252C73%26sr%3D8-2%26th%3D1%26tag%3Dhawk-future-20%26ascsubtag%3Dhawk-custom-tracking-20" data-link-merchant="Amazon US"" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Now $69.99 on Amazon

If you can't see SpaceX's Starship in person, you can score a model of your own. Standing at 13.77 inches (35 cm), this is a 1:375 ratio of SpaceX's Starship as a desktop model. The materials here are alloy steel and it weighs just 225g.

Note: Stock is low so you'll have to act quickly to get this. 

Starship is the biggest and most powerful launcher ever built, boasting nearly twice the thrust at liftoff of NASA's Space Launch System megarocket. 

Starship consists of two fully reusable elements, both powered by SpaceX's Raptor engine: a giant first-stage booster called Super Heavy and a 165-foot-tall (50 meters) upper stage known as Starship. 

The April 20 flight marked the first time the duo had flown together. The goal that day was to send the Ship 24 upper-stage prototype partway around Earth, ending with a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. But Starship suffered a number of problems, chief among them the failure of its two stages to separate. Thus, Starship's Autonomous Flight Safety System was engaged, destroying the vehicle high above the Gulf of Mexico.

Other issues became apparent after the dust had cleared. 

For example, the self-destruct command took longer than expected to manifest, and the enormous power of Super Heavy's 33 Raptor engines caused considerable damage to Starbase. Those engines blasted out a crater beneath the site's orbital launch mount, launching chunks of concrete high into the air.

Such problems need to be addressed ahead of future Starship flights, the mishap investigation determined.

"Corrective actions include redesigns of vehicle hardware to prevent leaks and fires, redesign of the launch pad to increase its robustness, incorporation of additional reviews in the design process, additional analysis and testing of safety critical systems and components including the Autonomous Flight Safety System, and the application of additional change control practices," FAA officials wrote in today's statement.  

SpaceX has already done much of this work, according to company founder and CEO Elon Musk. In a post today on X (formerly known as Twitter), the billionaire entrepreneur said the company has made "thousands of upgrades" to Starship, the launch pad and Starbase's huge launch tower.

Perhaps the biggest of these upgrades is the switch to "hot staging," a strategy in which a launch vehicle's upper stage begins firing its engines before it has fully separated from the first stage. This shift required the installation of a heat shield and "vented interstage" on the Super Heavy being prepped to fly next, a prototype called Booster 9.

SpaceX has also fortified the ground beneath Starbase's orbital launch mount with a steel plate, which spouts water to dissipate the destructive power of Super Heavy's 33 Raptors. This deluge system showed its stuff during a recent "static fire" engine test of Booster 9.

Join our Space Forums to keep talking space on the latest missions, night sky and more! And if you have a news tip, correction or comment, let us know at: community@space.com.

Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.

  • 24launch
    TO BE CLEAR, the FAA itself did not create the 63 corrective actions. SpaceX did.
    It would be helpful to read what former SpaceX mission director Abhi Tripathi tweeted out this afternoon to explain the process:

    I've seen dozens of "Twitter experts" misunderstand this (often time by adding "Breaking..." to their post for extra clicks) so let me reiterate and further explain what *Chris details below.

    SpaceX LEADS the investigation. SpaceX issues the corrective actions. They pre-write a mishap investigation plan before they even launch. Then they execute their plan if they have an actual mishap. The FAA formally reviews the plan and also the investigation results and SpaceX-recommended corrective actions (but...informally they already know what's coming because of close coordination). The FAA provides feedback, and could recommend adding something if warranted. Their main job is to verify and enforce that SpaceX does what SpaceX said it will do once they approve the final report. In reality, 90% or more of corrective actions may be finished before the report is even formally submitted. Just depends on how well the root cause(s) are understood and easy to fix.

    The general public often believes the FAA writes all the corrective actions and has a large team of people conducting the investigation with a heavy hand (e.g. "the big bad government"). No way. I doubt that will ever be the case for any mishap or anomaly. That is simply not how the government is staffed.

    The FAA (and their NASA colleagues who have the relevant technical expertise) are typically in super close contact with the SpaceX team through the head of SpaceX Flight Reliability (where the chief engineers reside).

    The statements released by the government are usually kept vague but factual, often to the great dismay of social and traditional media (as well as "stans") who want a juicy bite, ideally brimming with conflict. It is in a government agency's best interest to maintain flexibility and work with who they are overseeing...while keeping the politicians and click-bait journalists and influencers away. Inflammatory statements could rally politicians to one side or the other, and then SpaceX and the FAA's job could become charged and harder. Many people want to see that happen for many reasons.

    If the final approval stalls, often times it is over a corrective action that was too open to interpretation. As an example of what I mean, if a corrective action is worded as such:
    "Redesign of the launch pad to increase its robustness."
    Ooh boy. So you want to break that down into discrete actions defining what "robustness" means.

    If you want to learn more about the FAA's role, read their website here:
    https://www.faa.gov/space/compliance_enforcement_mishap
    * He's referring to a tweet by Chris Bergin (from another space news website). This is Chris' tweet:

    Additional background on the release:

    The FAA oversaw the SpaceX-led investigation to ensure the company complied with its FAA-approved mishap plan and other regulatory requirements.

    The FAA was involved in every step of the mishap investigation and granted NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board official observer status.

    The mishap investigation report contains proprietary data and U.S Export Control information and is not available for public release.
    Reply
  • Ken Fabian
    Does the damage to the launch pad indicate a significant potential problem for landing and launching on open ground on the moon or Mars? Small rockets and especially single engines seem less likely to throw damaging debri back at anything vulnerable than a large rocket with a broad base and multiple engines. Building a launch pad first seems especially difficult. I think it is very unlikely any attempts at colonizing will ever happen but research bases, maybe - and an ability to return safely (or just more likely to than not) will be an essential part either way.
    Reply
  • billslugg
    I believe they will use a nozzle ring around the top of the landing craft so the Moon regolith won't be stirred up too much. Maybe those colonists could build solid rock pads for later use by bottom mounted engines.
    Reply
  • Robert Clark
    24launch said:
    TO BE CLEAR, the FAA itself did not create the 63 corrective actions. SpaceX did.
    It would be helpful to read what former SpaceX mission director Abhi Tripathi tweeted out this afternoon to explain the process:

    I've seen dozens of "Twitter experts" misunderstand this (often time by adding "Breaking..." to their post for extra clicks) so let me reiterate and further explain what *Chris details below.

    SpaceX LEADS the investigation. SpaceX issues the corrective actions. They pre-write a mishap investigation plan before they even launch. Then they execute their plan if they have an actual mishap. The FAA formally reviews the plan and also the investigation results and SpaceX-recommended corrective actions (but...informally they already know what's coming because of close coordination). The FAA provides feedback, and could recommend adding something if warranted. Their main job is to verify and enforce that SpaceX does what SpaceX said it will do once they approve the final report. In reality, 90% or more of corrective actions may be finished before the report is even formally submitted. Just depends on how well the root cause(s) are understood and easy to fix.

    The general public often believes the FAA writes all the corrective actions and has a large team of people conducting the investigation with a heavy hand (e.g. "the big bad government"). No way. I doubt that will ever be the case for any mishap or anomaly. That is simply not how the government is staffed.

    The FAA (and their NASA colleagues who have the relevant technical expertise) are typically in super close contact with the SpaceX team through the head of SpaceX Flight Reliability (where the chief engineers reside).

    The statements released by the government are usually kept vague but factual, often to the great dismay of social and traditional media (as well as "stans") who want a juicy bite, ideally brimming with conflict. It is in a government agency's best interest to maintain flexibility and work with who they are overseeing...while keeping the politicians and click-bait journalists and influencers away. Inflammatory statements could rally politicians to one side or the other, and then SpaceX and the FAA's job could become charged and harder. Many people want to see that happen for many reasons.

    If the final approval stalls, often times it is over a corrective action that was too open to interpretation. As an example of what I mean, if a corrective action is worded as such:
    "Redesign of the launch pad to increase its robustness."
    Ooh boy. So you want to break that down into discrete actions defining what "robustness" means.

    If you want to learn more about the FAA's role, read their website here:
    https://www.faa.gov/space/compliance_enforcement_mishap
    * He's referring to a tweet by Chris Bergin (from another space news website). This is Chris' tweet:

    Additional background on the release:

    The FAA oversaw the SpaceX-led investigation to ensure the company complied with its FAA-approved mishap plan and other regulatory requirements.

    The FAA was involved in every step of the mishap investigation and granted NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board official observer status.

    The mishap investigation report contains proprietary data and U.S Export Control information and is not available for public release.
    Tripathi is a former SpaceX official so he can hardly be considered an objective observer. I don’t agree the 63 corrective actions mentioned in the FAA news release were all proposed by SpaceX because of this odd comment Elon made on twitter:

    Elon Musk @elonmusk
    What are the 63 items?
    4:06 PM · Sep 8, 2023
    496.9K Views 352 Reposts 146 Quotes 3,993 Likes 61 Bookmarks
    1700239116993233015View: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1700239116993233015?s=20

    Robert Clark
    Reply
  • Robert Clark
    To me this is the big one in the FAA news release:

    “Corrective actions include redesigns of vehicle hardware to prevent leaks and fires,…”

    That sounds to me the FAA wants SpaceX to solve that issue before being granted another launch license. People watching replays seeing the engines catch on fire just say, “That’s interesting; it looks like some engines caught on fire.” They don’t realize how bad that looks to actual rocket engineers. A rocket engine leaking fuel and catching on fire during its normal flight regime is NOT normal.

    The Raptor has been leaking fuel and catching fire all through the years of its development, including on that April test launch. I don’t think SpaceX is going to be solve that overnight when they haven’t been able to solve it over all the years of the Raptor development. They are not going to be able to solve it by keep launching the SuperHeavy/Starship until it stops exploding.

    Instead of following the infamous Soviet N-1 approach, they should follow the Apollo approach to developing the Saturn V first stage. Build a separate static test stand capable of full up, full thrust, full flight duration test burns of all 33 engines of the Superheavy. Do incremental testing gradually building up to full thrust, full flight duration tests. When all 33 engines can pass these test together, then proceed to actual test flights.

    Robert Clark
    Reply
  • FireNWater
    Item #64: Send $$$$$'s to Congress.
    .
    Be a shame if something bad happened to your launch license, Elon . .
    Reply
  • Jasper
    Robert Clark said:
    To me this is the big one in the FAA news release:

    “Corrective actions include redesigns of vehicle hardware to prevent leaks and fires,…”

    That sounds to me the FAA wants SpaceX to solve that issue before being granted another launch license. People watching replays seeing the engines catch on fire just say, “That’s interesting; it looks like some engines caught on fire.” They don’t realize how bad that looks to actual rocket engineers. A rocket engine leaking fuel and catching on fire during its normal flight regime is NOT normal.

    The Raptor has been leaking fuel and catching fire all through the years of its development, including on that April test launch. I don’t think SpaceX is going to be solve that overnight when they haven’t been able to solve it over all the years of the Raptor development. They are not going to be able to solve it by keep launching the SuperHeavy/Starship until it stops exploding.

    Instead of following the infamous Soviet N-1 approach, they should follow the Apollo approach to developing the Saturn V first stage. Build a separate static test stand capable of full up, full thrust, full flight duration test burns of all 33 engines of the Superheavy. Do incremental testing gradually building up to full thrust, full flight duration tests. When all 33 engines can pass these test together, then proceed to actual test flights.

    Robert Clark
    I agree, engine problems are a big issue. They did fix a fuel leakage issue recently, but that might not be enough. Rigorous testing using a test setup you mention will not happen. It will take too much time and they have to launch next week (or before that).
    It might take a year or so to really fix the engines, if possible, and by then two Xes will be bankrupt.
    Reply
  • Unclear Engineer
    It seems more like the corrective actions are mostly already done.

    See 1700789411279966339View: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1700789411279966339/photo/1 and 1700789411279966339View: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1700789411279966339/photo/2
    Edit: not sure what happened with those links. note that they end with "photo 1" and "photo 2". The way I was viewing them and copied the URLs, they were different and showed the whole set of 63 items in the 2 overlapping photos. Try going to one of them and clicking on the image to open it in a new window, which is what I did to see more items in each of the photos.
    Reply