Starship successfully makes orbit – but the FAA has grounded it anyway

Starship successfully makes orbit – but the FAA has grounded it anyway
Starship lifting off
Starship lifting off
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Starship over the Indian Ocean
Starship over the Indian Ocean
Starship reentering the atmosphere
Starship reentering the atmosphere
Starship lifting off
Starship lifting off
Views from the Super Heavy booster (left) and Starship (right)
Views from the Super Heavy booster (left) and Starship (right)
Starship in orbit
Starship in orbit
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Third time's the charm! SpaceX's Starship roared into orbit today from the company's Starbase near Boca Chica, Texas. Larger and more powerful than the venerable Saturn V, the giant rocket lifted off into the history books at 8:25 am CDT.

Starship may have been the premiere project of SpaceX and a key component of NASA's Artemis Moon program, but it was also the butt of many jokes and the target for skepticism. This isn't surprising, given the tendency of the Starship prototypes to blow up – including on the last two test flights.

That changed today as the two-stage Starship rose from the launch pad on the thrust of 33 engines generating over twice the thrust of the Saturn V, making Starship the largest and most powerful flying object ever made.

The flight took place under good weather and without holds, with the maximum dynamic pressure reached at the 52-second mark into the flight. Unlike more conventional rockets where the first stage shuts down and the second stage separates, at the two-minute 42-second mark all but the core engines of the Super Heavy first stage shut down and the second stage ignited while still attached, in a maneuver known as "hot staging."

After stage separation two seconds later, the first stage carried out a controlled engine burn to return to the Gulf of Mexico for a soft splashdown. Meanwhile, the second stage, called Starship or "the Ship" continued its engine burn until it achieved orbital velocity.

During the flight, Mission Control conducted a number of tests, including pumping cryogenic propellants from one tank to another as part of an effort to develop methods of refueling spacecraft for projected Moon missions. In addition, the payload bay doors were opened and closed in anticipation of the day when Starship will carry cargo and even passengers.

Restarting a Raptor engine was scheduled, but wasn't carried out because the spacecraft's trajectory needed no corrections. Communications were lost with Starship during reentry and before it reached its planned splashdown site in the Indian Ocean, about 65 minutes after launch.

But both the booster and Starship itself failed to put the cherry on the sundae; the idea was to have both execute a mock precision landing and splashdown. SpaceX wasn't planning to recover either, and both seem to have ended up where they should've, but the final stage didn't go according to plan.

So while this was overall a very successful mission, The FAA has launched an investigation into why neither the the Super Heavy booster nor the Starship vehicle made the planned 'soft landings' in the ocean. As a result, Starship is effectively grounded until these issues are solved.

"A return to flight is based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety," reads the FAA statement. "In addition, SpaceX may need to modify its license to incorporate any corrective actions and meet all other licensing requirements."

SpaceX is leading the investigation, and the FAA has pledged to "be involved in every step," with final approval on the report.

Source: SpaceX

Edit: An earlier version of this article, which cited SpaceX livestream sources, has been updated.

View gallery - 5 images
It was a spectacular test, despite the reentry breakup. Every launch is a major improvement over the previous one. SpaceX's "fail fast" development process is breathtaking. They learn quickly, make improvements, and test again. Their approach has revolutionized commercial rocket launches. We're watching science fiction become reality.
The main take-away is all that worked as intended!
Ornery Johnson
Will be interesting to see the details of why the Starship failed on reentry. My guess is that they need slightly better attitude control to properly orient the spacecraft for reentry. It looked at one point like the orientation was off, exposing areas without heat-resistant tiles to excess heat.
Third time launch of the Starship went t 233 KM altitude.
It took NASA & company several years and dozens of failures.
100% Politics.
The Media is so gung-ho to focus on every negative detail (oooh! It blows up!!!)... Trust me, I'm hardly an Elon fan-boi, but SpaceX and Starship are one of the few things that humanity is involved with, that is utterly positive.

(Falcon 9 -- they'll *never* be able to land and reuse it... Umm...).

BTW: Love your site. Keep it up.
dave be
Meh on the 'fail fast' thing. Spacex was started 22 years ago and they've built on top of NASA tech, used NASA engineers, NASA infrastructure. Even hyping Spacex as being exceptionally commercial is bogus, they're all commercial. GE, JPL, Boeing, McDonal Douglas are all commercial companies and all had a hand in Apollo. The only thing thats different is who gets to cash the checks. Yes they've managed to crash another rocket .. yes they'll probably do better next time.

So while Fail Fast has taken 22 years to get to the point of failing in their designs again Apollo went from nothing to the moon in 9 years including developing all the tech and infrastructure to do it.

They're fine.. and they manage to get things done eventually. But nothing overly exceptional.
Steve A
The headline is misleading, as SX did NOT circularize the orbit on purpose, so that if something went wrong (it did), then the ship would come back from its suborbital flight no matter what. SX said that the engine burn was not done due to a roll. Since the ship tumbled on reentry and the booster failed its landing, it is a mishap. SX leads the mishap investigation and it will take as long as it takes SX to find the causes of the failures.
Bill Housley
The relight test was arguably necessary to a future, fully orbital flight. The vacuum Raptors have never been relit in space. That is why this flight and the one previous, were ballistic paths aiming at splashdown locations. Once in full orbit, they must be able to choose where the rocket reenters or risk it crashing on a populated area. They do that by reliably relighting the engines in a retro burn which slows the space craft to a ballistic path that drops it over water.
SpaceX skipped the relight test because there were safety parameters for that too and there were problems with the spacecraft that caused them to decide not to attempt it.
Bill Housley
Ornery Johnson -- Yes, it looked like it was rolling and tumbling. That's might be why they didn't try to relight the engines, because burning the engines with the spacecraft pointing the wrong direction could make unsafe changes to its trajectory.

Without that engine relight test, I doubt that the FAA will let them go for full a full orbit flight on the next go.

I wonder if they'll be able to test deploy a few Starlink satellites anyway...even on a ballistic flight path.

BTW, the article is overly critical of the FAA. There has to be root causes for any non-nominal results, even if those results were not critical to the success of the key objectives. Those root causes might cause or point to other problems and need to be chased down and corrected. This is all standard procedure. By treaty, the International responsibility for any injury or property damage done by a rocket such as this lies with the country from who's soil the launch originates. You might say that the FAA is doing CYA for our nation.
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