FAA closes investigation of SpaceX's Starship launch mishap

Oct 30, 2021
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TO BE CLEAR, the FAA itself did not create the 63 corrective actions. SpaceX did.
It would be helpful to read what former SpaceX mission director Abhi Tripathi tweeted out this afternoon to explain the process:

I've seen dozens of "Twitter experts" misunderstand this (often time by adding "Breaking..." to their post for extra clicks) so let me reiterate and further explain what *Chris details below.

SpaceX LEADS the investigation. SpaceX issues the corrective actions. They pre-write a mishap investigation plan before they even launch. Then they execute their plan if they have an actual mishap. The FAA formally reviews the plan and also the investigation results and SpaceX-recommended corrective actions (but...informally they already know what's coming because of close coordination). The FAA provides feedback, and could recommend adding something if warranted. Their main job is to verify and enforce that SpaceX does what SpaceX said it will do once they approve the final report. In reality, 90% or more of corrective actions may be finished before the report is even formally submitted. Just depends on how well the root cause(s) are understood and easy to fix.

The general public often believes the FAA writes all the corrective actions and has a large team of people conducting the investigation with a heavy hand (e.g. "the big bad government"). No way. I doubt that will ever be the case for any mishap or anomaly. That is simply not how the government is staffed.

The FAA (and their NASA colleagues who have the relevant technical expertise) are typically in super close contact with the SpaceX team through the head of SpaceX Flight Reliability (where the chief engineers reside).

The statements released by the government are usually kept vague but factual, often to the great dismay of social and traditional media (as well as "stans") who want a juicy bite, ideally brimming with conflict. It is in a government agency's best interest to maintain flexibility and work with who they are overseeing...while keeping the politicians and click-bait journalists and influencers away. Inflammatory statements could rally politicians to one side or the other, and then SpaceX and the FAA's job could become charged and harder. Many people want to see that happen for many reasons.

If the final approval stalls, often times it is over a corrective action that was too open to interpretation. As an example of what I mean, if a corrective action is worded as such:
"Redesign of the launch pad to increase its robustness."
Ooh boy. So you want to break that down into discrete actions defining what "robustness" means.

If you want to learn more about the FAA's role, read their website here:


* He's referring to a tweet by Chris Bergin (from another space news website). This is Chris' tweet:

Additional background on the release:

The FAA oversaw the SpaceX-led investigation to ensure the company complied with its FAA-approved mishap plan and other regulatory requirements.

The FAA was involved in every step of the mishap investigation and granted NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board official observer status.

The mishap investigation report contains proprietary data and U.S Export Control information and is not available for public release.
 
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Does the damage to the launch pad indicate a significant potential problem for landing and launching on open ground on the moon or Mars? Small rockets and especially single engines seem less likely to throw damaging debri back at anything vulnerable than a large rocket with a broad base and multiple engines. Building a launch pad first seems especially difficult. I think it is very unlikely any attempts at colonizing will ever happen but research bases, maybe - and an ability to return safely (or just more likely to than not) will be an essential part either way.
 
I believe they will use a nozzle ring around the top of the landing craft so the Moon regolith won't be stirred up too much. Maybe those colonists could build solid rock pads for later use by bottom mounted engines.
 
Sep 9, 2023
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TO BE CLEAR, the FAA itself did not create the 63 corrective actions. SpaceX did.
It would be helpful to read what former SpaceX mission director Abhi Tripathi tweeted out this afternoon to explain the process:

I've seen dozens of "Twitter experts" misunderstand this (often time by adding "Breaking..." to their post for extra clicks) so let me reiterate and further explain what *Chris details below.

SpaceX LEADS the investigation. SpaceX issues the corrective actions. They pre-write a mishap investigation plan before they even launch. Then they execute their plan if they have an actual mishap. The FAA formally reviews the plan and also the investigation results and SpaceX-recommended corrective actions (but...informally they already know what's coming because of close coordination). The FAA provides feedback, and could recommend adding something if warranted. Their main job is to verify and enforce that SpaceX does what SpaceX said it will do once they approve the final report. In reality, 90% or more of corrective actions may be finished before the report is even formally submitted. Just depends on how well the root cause(s) are understood and easy to fix.

The general public often believes the FAA writes all the corrective actions and has a large team of people conducting the investigation with a heavy hand (e.g. "the big bad government"). No way. I doubt that will ever be the case for any mishap or anomaly. That is simply not how the government is staffed.

The FAA (and their NASA colleagues who have the relevant technical expertise) are typically in super close contact with the SpaceX team through the head of SpaceX Flight Reliability (where the chief engineers reside).

The statements released by the government are usually kept vague but factual, often to the great dismay of social and traditional media (as well as "stans") who want a juicy bite, ideally brimming with conflict. It is in a government agency's best interest to maintain flexibility and work with who they are overseeing...while keeping the politicians and click-bait journalists and influencers away. Inflammatory statements could rally politicians to one side or the other, and then SpaceX and the FAA's job could become charged and harder. Many people want to see that happen for many reasons.

If the final approval stalls, often times it is over a corrective action that was too open to interpretation. As an example of what I mean, if a corrective action is worded as such:
"Redesign of the launch pad to increase its robustness."
Ooh boy. So you want to break that down into discrete actions defining what "robustness" means.

If you want to learn more about the FAA's role, read their website here:


* He's referring to a tweet by Chris Bergin (from another space news website). This is Chris' tweet:

Additional background on the release:

The FAA oversaw the SpaceX-led investigation to ensure the company complied with its FAA-approved mishap plan and other regulatory requirements.

The FAA was involved in every step of the mishap investigation and granted NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board official observer status.

The mishap investigation report contains proprietary data and U.S Export Control information and is not available for public release.
Tripathi is a former SpaceX official so he can hardly be considered an objective observer. I don’t agree the 63 corrective actions mentioned in the FAA news release were all proposed by SpaceX because of this odd comment Elon made on twitter:

Elon Musk @elonmusk
What are the 63 items?
4:06 PM · Sep 8, 2023
496.9K Views 352 Reposts 146 Quotes 3,993 Likes 61 Bookmarks
View: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1700239116993233015?s=20


Robert Clark
 
Sep 9, 2023
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To me this is the big one in the FAA news release:

“Corrective actions include redesigns of vehicle hardware to prevent leaks and fires,…”

That sounds to me the FAA wants SpaceX to solve that issue before being granted another launch license. People watching replays seeing the engines catch on fire just say, “That’s interesting; it looks like some engines caught on fire.” They don’t realize how bad that looks to actual rocket engineers. A rocket engine leaking fuel and catching on fire during its normal flight regime is NOT normal.

The Raptor has been leaking fuel and catching fire all through the years of its development, including on that April test launch. I don’t think SpaceX is going to be solve that overnight when they haven’t been able to solve it over all the years of the Raptor development. They are not going to be able to solve it by keep launching the SuperHeavy/Starship until it stops exploding.

Instead of following the infamous Soviet N-1 approach, they should follow the Apollo approach to developing the Saturn V first stage. Build a separate static test stand capable of full up, full thrust, full flight duration test burns of all 33 engines of the Superheavy. Do incremental testing gradually building up to full thrust, full flight duration tests. When all 33 engines can pass these test together, then proceed to actual test flights.

Robert Clark
 
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Dec 30, 2019
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To me this is the big one in the FAA news release:

“Corrective actions include redesigns of vehicle hardware to prevent leaks and fires,…”

That sounds to me the FAA wants SpaceX to solve that issue before being granted another launch license. People watching replays seeing the engines catch on fire just say, “That’s interesting; it looks like some engines caught on fire.” They don’t realize how bad that looks to actual rocket engineers. A rocket engine leaking fuel and catching on fire during its normal flight regime is NOT normal.

The Raptor has been leaking fuel and catching fire all through the years of its development, including on that April test launch. I don’t think SpaceX is going to be solve that overnight when they haven’t been able to solve it over all the years of the Raptor development. They are not going to be able to solve it by keep launching the SuperHeavy/Starship until it stops exploding.

Instead of following the infamous Soviet N-1 approach, they should follow the Apollo approach to developing the Saturn V first stage. Build a separate static test stand capable of full up, full thrust, full flight duration test burns of all 33 engines of the Superheavy. Do incremental testing gradually building up to full thrust, full flight duration tests. When all 33 engines can pass these test together, then proceed to actual test flights.

Robert Clark
I agree, engine problems are a big issue. They did fix a fuel leakage issue recently, but that might not be enough. Rigorous testing using a test setup you mention will not happen. It will take too much time and they have to launch next week (or before that).
It might take a year or so to really fix the engines, if possible, and by then two Xes will be bankrupt.
 
It seems more like the corrective actions are mostly already done.

See View: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1700789411279966339/photo/1
and View: https://twitter.com/elonmusk/status/1700789411279966339/photo/2

Edit: not sure what happened with those links. note that they end with "photo 1" and "photo 2". The way I was viewing them and copied the URLs, they were different and showed the whole set of 63 items in the 2 overlapping photos. Try going to one of them and clicking on the image to open it in a new window, which is what I did to see more items in each of the photos.
 
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