Following SpaceX’s Starship first test flight on 20 April, which had to be ended with a manually triggered explosion, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) launched a “mishap investigation” into the rocket’s safety standards. The authority closed the investigation on 8 September, concluding that 63 changes must be made to Starship before it is allowed another test flight.
Launching from SpaceX’s Boca Chica site, in Texas on 20 April, during lift-off, structural failure of the launch pad deck foundation occurred, sending debris and sand into the air. On ascent, Starship deviated from the expected trajectory, resulting in the Autonomous Flight Safety System (AFSS) issuing a destruct command. After an unexpected delay following AFSS activation, Starship broke up, resulting in the loss of the launch vehicle.
The final report cites multiple root causes of the mishap and 63 corrective actions SpaceX must take to prevent the reoccurrence of a similar event. 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.
Elon Musk said on X on 6 September that Starship is ready to launch again, awaiting FAA approval, however, following the investigation, SpaceX must implement all the 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 test flight.
During a podcast type discussion on X with Bloomberg journalist Ashlee Vance, Musk also revealed in June that, following an internal investigation, SpaceX had already made “well over a thousand” changes to Starship. “We made sort of a late-breaking change that’s really quite significant to the way that stage separation works”, Musk told Vance. “There’s a meaningful payload-to-orbit advantage with hot-staging that is conservatively about a 10% increase.”
In a less structurally important modification, Musk admitted on a podcast with Joe Rogen in 2021 that he drew inspiration from Sacha Baron Cohen’s character Admiral General Aladeen, in “The Dictator”, and asked his engineers to make the tip of the rocket pointier. “Round is not scary. Pointy is scary”, Cohen says in the film and Musk “thought it might be funny to make it more pointy”. “It’s arguably slightly worse, but it looks cooler”, Musk said.