SpaceX’s giant Starship rocket may fly again as soon as Friday, November 17. According to the company, the final hurdle is being given formal and final regulatory approval by the US FAA before the 397-ft (121-m) spacecraft can lift off.
The second flight of Starship has been in limbo ever since they type’s spectacular maiden flight on April 30, 2023, when the flight terminated after only four minutes when the mission was aborted and the vehicle deliberately detonated over the Gulf of Mexico.
The first flight was marred by a number of problems, including the failure of at least two of the 33 Raptor engines in the Falcon Heavy first stage, but the final nail was the failure of the second stage to separate.
If the problems in the air were bad enough, those on the ground were equally alarming. Unlike the launch pads at Cape Canaveral or the Kennedy Space Center, which use armored thrust deflectors, large concrete aprons, and water deluge systems to protect against the backwash of launching rockets, SpaceX used a simple concrete pad.
This might have worked with smaller rockets, but since Starship is the most powerful launch vehicle ever made, the results were appalling. The output from the Super Heavy’s engines blasted a giant crater in the concrete, sending debris ranging from the size of golf balls to car engines flying as far as three quarters of a mile (1.2 km), tearing down fences and smashing vehicles in the carpark. There was also a debris cloud that traveled as far as 6.5 miles (10 km) north of the launch pad and contaminated a wildlife area.
Needless to say, this did not endear SpaceX to the FAA, which launched an investigation that only ended on October 31 and resulted in a long list of new safety requirements for the company to comply with. This included a new launch pad with a steel deflector plate and a water deluge system, and improvements to the rocket itself.
According to SpaceX, there is a new electronic Thrust Vector Control (TVC) system for Super Heavy Raptor engines and the second stage will use a hot-stage separation system, which is new to Western rockets. Developed by the Russians, hot staging is where the second stage fires while still attached to the first stage, with the exhaust escaping through vents in the interstage connector. It’s a bit crude, but it does improve the chances of a successful stage separation.