The FAA Is Being Sued Over SpaceX’s Starship Launch
The plot thickens.
On April 20th, 2023, the world's largest rocket, SpaceX’s Starship, underwent its first orbital test launch. While it didn’t make it to orbit and had to self-detonate after its first stage failed to separate, SpaceX is still framing the launch as a success, given that it actually managed lift-off, and they now have all the data they need to ensure the next test goes well (read more here). Unfortunately, during this historic launch, Starship obliterated its launchpad, spreading debris and particulate pollution for miles around. This contamination was so bad that the FAA has effectively grounded Starship until it can figure out why this collapse occurred, which could take up to a year to fully analyse (read more here). But conservation, ecological, and cultural organisations that surround Starship’s Boca Chica, Texas, launch site have now sued the FAA for permitting SpaceX to launch Starship before it was ready, threatening the delicate local ecosystem and the health of the locals.
Let’s first start with why the launchpad disintegrated beneath Starship. Most rockets have fire trenches beneath them, which spread out the hypersonic, superheated rocket exhaust over a vast and controlled area, ensuring a safe launch that doesn’t damage the ground, infrastructure, or the rocket itself. In true Elon fashion, SpaceX didn’t bother with fire trenches and bucked convention by opting for a water-cooled steel plate instead. This would make the exhaust less manageable, but presumably Musk chose it because it is cheaper to build and easier to get planning permission for. After all, fire trenches are massive, and SpaceX’s Boca Chica site is small and restricted by the federally protected land around it.
Musk scheduled the launch to take place on April 20th—no prizes for guessing why this meme-obsessed 51-year-old chose 4/20 to launch his pride and joy. But while the rocket and launch tower were ready on time, the steel plate was not. Rather than wait for the launch pad to be complete, Musk and his engineers looked at the data from their static fire test of Starship on the launchpad at 50% thrust and used it to figure out if the bare concrete pad could handle a fully stacked Starship launch. They found that it could and went ahead with the launch.
However, Starship has twice the thrust of NASA’s SLS, and NASA insisted the SLS use fire trenches as the rocket would easily obliterate its concrete launch pad. So it was no surprise when, after Starship took off, it blasted its launch pad to smithereens and left a crater deep enough to reach the soil beneath it.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Planet Earth & Beyond to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.