Another Starship Test Ends With a Bang

Another Starship Test Ends With a Bang

SpaceX finally got approval from the FAA for another Starship test flight today, but like the one before, it ended in a spectacular explosion. The news today is less about the crash, however, which SpaceX seemed to take in stride, than the company’s compliance or lack thereof with FAA licenses.

SpaceX is conducting tests of Starship prototypes at its Boca Chica facility in Texas, near Brownsville.  Starship is the second stage of a space transportation system designed to take people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. The first stage, Super Heavy, and Starship are designed to be reusable so must not only launch, but survive the landing as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 first stages do today.

The first Starship test with three methane-powered Raptor engines, Serial Number 8 (SN8), took place in December.  After an impressive take off and in-flight maneuvers, it was going too fast when it reached the ground and exploded on contact.

SpaceX produces these prototypes at a steady pace and SN9 and SN10 were waiting in the wings.  SpaceX and many in the space community shrugged off the ending, focusing on what went right instead of what went wrong.

SpaceX Starship prototypes SN9 (right) and SN10 (left) at Boca Chica, TX test facility. Screengrab from SpaceX webcast of SN9 test flight February 2, 2021.

The company scheduled the next test flight, SN9, for January 28 and announced it would provide a live webcast. Launch preparations continued through the day, but as it turned out, SpaceX did not have permission from the FAA to launch.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) regulates, facilitates and promotes the commercial space launch and reentry business. Companies like SpaceX must get licenses before conducting flight tests or launches.

SpaceX was acting as though everything was in order for SN9, but behind the scenes the FAA was still reviewing the company’s corrective actions after it did not fully comply with the SN8 license.

The first public hint of discord came when SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk chastised FAA/AST in a tweet that day calling its regulatory structure “fundamentally broken.” He rescheduled the launch for Friday, but had to cancel it again.  On Saturday, Joey Roulette, writing for The Verge, reported that the FAA had not approved the test in part because it was looking into a license violation on SN8.

This morning, the FAA issued a statement that it had now determined SpaceX “complies with all safety and federal regulations” and authorized the SN9 flight. It also provided more information on the SN8 violation.

The statement elicited surprise by some in the space community that SpaceX was not being held to fuller account for violating a license. This evening, after the SN9 test, the FAA released a more complete explanation of the incident and stressed that the goal of its actions is to “modify behavior to comply with federal safety regulations.” The corrective actions it required were implemented and “enhanced public safety.”

George Nield, who retired in 2018 after 10 years as the head of FAA/AST, praised the work of that office in a statement to today. Whatever the specific details on what part of the far field overpressure requirements were violated, the key is that the FAA and SpaceX were able to reach agreement on how to proceed safely rather than the FAA simply saying no. By law, FAA/AST’s job is not only to ensure public safety, but facilitate and promote the industry.  “For the system to work, there needs to be transparency, a positive and collaborative attitude, and trust on both sides. In the end, the result was a good one in my opinion, even if it was rather frustrating for both sides.”

Separately, the FAA announced it would oversee an investigation into the root cause of whatever happened with SN9.

Although SN9 crashed to the ground and exploded like SN8, the problem appears to be different this time. SN8 was going too fast.  For SN9, it appeared one of the engines did not relight for landing as shown in this video from, a commercial website that has its own team filming SpaceX’s launches from Boca Chica.

Everything else seemed to work fine during the 6 minute 26 second test to an altitude of 10 kilometers. SpaceX provided a live webcast and its host, John Insprucker, pointed out all the successes before commenting that “We’ve just got to work on that landing a little bit.”

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