As the Federal Aviation Administration and environmental regulators probe into the damages caused by last week’s Starship orbital launch attempt and the subsequent mid-air explosion, SpaceX may not be able to launch a second Starship rocket as soon as CEO Elon Musk hopes.
On the morning of April 20, a 400-foot-tall Starship prototype lifted off from a launch pad at SpaceX’s Starbase development site in Boca Chica, Texas. About three minutes into the test mission, the rocket’s upper stage failed to separate from its booster and eventually blew up at about 20 miles in the sky. The explosion scattered rocket debris for miles from the launch site, shattered windows of nearby buildings, and coated residential homes with dust and particulate matter. Since then, environmental researchers have been scrambling to assess the impact of the explosion on local communities.
Yesterday (April 26), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) disclosed new findings including “a 3.5-acre fire that started south of the launch pad on Boca Chica State Park land” following the Starship flight and “numerous large concrete chunks, stainless steel sheets, metal and other objects hurled thousands of feet away,” along with “a plume cloud of pulverized concrete that deposited material up to 6.5 miles northwest of the [launch] pad,” the agency said in a report.
However, the FWS has not found any dead birds or other wildlife in the natural habitat near the launch site. The area surrounding Starbase is part of a National Wildlife Refuge property, where some endangered species of migratory birds, including piping plover, come for nesting each spring. Before last week’s launch, biologists had already noticed a decline in nesting activities in the area since SpaceX began regularly testing Starship prototypes in 2020.
Last week’s launch was the first attempt to fly Starship to Earth’s orbit. Although the mission failed, it provided valuable data for SpaceX to use for future tests. Musk said in a tweet on April 21 SpaceX could get another Starship prototype ready for flight in one to two months. In reality, it could take a lot longer now that the FAA is investigating last week’s flight.
Earlier this week, the FAA grounded SpaceX’s Starship launch program pending results of a “mishap investigation.” It’s part of a standard procedure following an anomaly during a rocket launch such as an explosion.
“Depending on circumstances, some mishap investigations might conclude in a matter of weeks. Other more complex investigations might take several months,” said Steven Kulm, a spokesperson for the FAA, in an email.
Starship can’t resume flight until the FAA determines that “any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety,” Kulm said.
In addition, SpaceX will need to request a modification of its existing FAA launch license in order to fly more Starship prototypes.