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FAA closes investigation into SpaceX Starship's double-explosion 2nd flight

Richard Tribou, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Science & Technology News

As SpaceX continues to gear up for flight No. 3 of its massive Starship and Super Heavy from Texas, the Federal Aviation Administration has closed the investigation into the second flight that resulted in explosions of both the booster and upper stages back in November.

The FAA on Monday said the SpaceX-led investigation into what was classified as a “mishap,” cited 17 action items that have to be addressed before any future launch licenses from SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas launch site Starbase are approved.

Starship is SpaceX’s replacement launch system for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and is completely reusable. It’s aiming to launch a third test flight as soon as next month if it can get approval.

The first launch of Starship and Super Heavy in April 2023 also ended in an explosion, but with the booster still connected to the upper stage. That launch also walloped the launch pad, and it took more than six months to close out that mishap investigation with 63 corrective actions.

The second flight performed much better despite the double combustive incidents mid-flight.

In an update from SpaceX on its website, it detailed what happened on that flight, which was part of the investigation overseen by the FAA with the help of NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board.

 

Changes to the launch pad including the introduction of a water-cooled flame deflector were among the most visible fixes between launches one and two, “requiring minimal post-launch work to be ready for vehicle tests and the next integrated flight test,” SpaceX reported. That was one facet of SpaceX’s testing that was of interest to the Space Coast as its future flight plans include launches potentially from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Pad 39-A, and NASA was concerned of damage to the adjacent pad from where SpaceX flies its human spaceflight missions to the International Space Station.

As far as other improvements, the Super Heavy booster’s 33 Raptor engines stayed lit for the entire upward flight during which it generated near 17 million pounds of thrust, which is nearly twice that of NASA’s Space Launch System rocket.

The second flight also saw successful stage separation, using a system called hot-fire staging that allows the upper Starship stage to light its engines while still connected to the Super Heavy booster so it can maintain upward thrust. It was after the stage separation that the two parts of the rocket saw their destructive ends.

As the Super Heavy booster performed a boostback burn designed to send it toward its return flight landing target, SpaceX lit back up 13 of 33 Raptor engines, but one of the engines “failed energetically, quickly cascading to a rapid unscheduled disassembly (RUD) of the booster.”

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