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FAA grounds Starship until SpaceX takes 63 ‘corrective actions’

SpaceX’s latest Starship test launch was its last for the foreseeable future. The FAA announced Friday that it has closed its investigation into April’s mishap, but that the company will not be allowed to resume test launches until it addresses a list of 63 “corrective actions” for its launch system.

“The vehicle’s structural margins appear to be better than we expected,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk joked with reporters in the wake of the late April test launch. Per the a report from the US Fish and WIldlife Service, however, the failed launch resulted in a 385-acre debris field that saw concrete chunks flung more than 2,600 feet from the launchpad, a 3.5-acre wildfire and “a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the pad site.”

“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,” the FAA release reads. Furthermore, the FAA says that SpaceX will have to not only complete that list but also apply for and receive a modification to its existing license “that addresses all safety, environmental and other applicable regulatory requirements prior to the next Starship launch.” In short, SpaceX has reached the “finding out” part.

SpaceX released a blog post shortly after the FAA’s announcement was made public, obliquely addressing the issue. “Starship’s first flight test provided numerous lessons learned,” the post reads, crediting its “rapid iterative development approach” with both helping develop all of SpaceX’s vehicles to this point and “directly contributing to several upgrades being made to both the vehicle and ground infrastructure.”

The company admitted that its Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS), which is designed to self-destruct a rocket when it goes off its flightpath but before it hits the ground, suffered “an unexpected delay” — that lasted 40 seconds. SpaceX did not elaborate on what cause, if any, it found for the fault but has reportedly since “enhanced and requalified the AFSS to improve system reliability.”

“SpaceX is also implementing a full suite of system performance upgrades unrelated to any issues observed during the first flight test,” the blog reads. Those improvements include a new hot-stage separation system which will more effectively decouple the first and second stages, a new electronic “Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system” for its Raptor heavy rockets, and “significant upgrades” to the orbital launch mount and pad system which just so happened to have failed in the first test but is, again, completely unrelated to this upgrade. Whether those improvements overlap with the 63 that the FAA is imposing, could not be confirmed at the time of publication as the FAA had not publically released them.

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