Welcome to this edition of The Intelligence Brief… where it’s all eyes on SpaceX again as the company’s latest Starship prototype crash left an all-new crater near its Boca Chica launch site on Tuesday. Hence, items in the queue this week include 1) what caused the latest in the company’s string of crashes, 2) issues the company may be facing as investigations into the cause of the crash are undertaken by the FAA, and 3) what caused the Department of Justice to issue a subpoena one day before the crash, which a judge recommends SpaceX should be forced to comply with.
History Repeats with Another Starship Prototype Crash
History repeats itself, or so the saying goes… but usually it takes a little more time for that to occur than it did SpaceX to launch another of its Starship prototypes which, like in previous instances, was destroyed while attempting to land after an otherwise successful launch.
Tuesday’s launch, which saw the company’s fourth in a series of high-altitude test flights of its Starship prototype, had a promising liftoff from its Starbase in Texas. However, Starship Serial Number 11, or SN11, began to experience problems as it entered its landing burn and, like previous test launches of the company’s new spacecraft prototype, was destroyed while attempting to land.
Viewers had difficulty seeing the landing attempt on account of multiple factors, which included the video feed freezing just prior to the destruction of the SN11, as well as fog around the landing site.
“At least the crater is in the right place!” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said after the incident in a Tweet, also clarifying that the prototype’s second engine appears to have experienced technical problems while still in the ascent stage, preventing it from reaching the optimal chamber pressure required for the subsequent landing phase.
Musk added that “in theory, [the second engine] wasn’t needed,” and that SpaceX planned to investigate “something significant” that occurred just after the spacecraft entered its landing burn.
“Shortly after the landing burn started, SN11 experienced a rapid unscheduled disassembly,” read a statement posted at the SpaceX website. “Teams will continue to review data and work toward our next flight test.”
The company’s official statement reiterated that test flights like those SpaceX has carried out in recent months are just that: test flights, which are “all about improving our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration interplanetary flights, and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.”
Enter the FAA, Again
Following the test flight and subsequent crash of the SN11, the FAA said it will be overseeing investigations into the cause of the crash.
“The [Starship] vehicle experienced an anomaly during the landing phase of the flight resulting in loss of the vehicle,” said an FAA spokesperson who was on-site at the SpaceX launch area in Texas when the test occurred.
“The FAA will approve the final mishap investigation report and any corrective actions SpaceX must take before return to flight is authorized,” the spokesperson added.
As with past test flights of the Starship prototype, no injuries were reported after Tuesday’s mishap. However, images appearing online after the crash showed shrapnel from the SN11 that had been found as much as five miles from its crash site after the explosion which destroyed the prototype.
As The Debrief and other outlets have previously reported, SpaceX has already found itself at odds with FAA policies in the past, with the company even going so far as to proceed with its launches without complete approval from the agency, whose primary job is to oversee civil aviation safety and regulation.
Elon Musk has been particularly vocal about his distaste for the agency’s policies, which may, in truth, actually require some revisions and updates in the years ahead, as more and more participation by civilian space agencies continues to be the norm.
While SpaceX has expressed its issues with the FAA and its policies in recent days, Musk’s company has received its own share of critiques in the aftermath of claims of discrimination against foreign applicants, resulting in a probe that led the Department of Justice (DOJ) to issue a subpoena on Monday. A report from Magistrate Judge Michael Wilner the same day also recommended that the company should be forced to comply with the DOJ’s subpoena.
The DOJ’s current probe is one of several investigations into hiring practices by SpaceX currently underway, and was issued despite objections from the company that it represented a “government overreach.” In his report, Wilner stated that “there is an insufficient basis to conclude that the subpoena is overbroad or presents an undue burden to SpaceX.”
In light of the failed pushback form SpaceX, it seems that the aerospace giant’s relationship with the FAA is not unlike the way it gets along with other federal agencies… a dynamic that is unlikely to resolve itself as Musk’s company continues with ambitious plans for the future of human spaceflight, and in particular, the role it hopes the United States will play in leading that effort in the years to come.