NASA expects delay: Starship grounded pending investigation

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The SpaceX crew continues to clean up debris Tuesday afternoon, April 25, 2023, after the April 20 launch of Starship-Super Heavy extensively damaged the launch pad area. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

AThe agency’s goal of returning astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than 50 years could be delayed yet again due to the Federal Aviation Administration’s investigation into the mid-air explosion, according to a senior NASA official. of a SpaceX/Super Heavy spacecraft on April 20.

An autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) aboard the two-stage Starship-Super Heavy triggered the explosion, approximately four minutes into the prototype’s first orbital test flight, after the vehicle lost control after the two stages have not separated. The mission called for Super Heavy to detach from Starship shortly after launch from Boca Chica and land in the Gulf of Mexico, while Starship was to orbit the Earth once before landing at the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility near Hawaii.

The accident automatically triggered an FAA investigation and orbital flight tests from Boca Chica are suspended until the investigation is complete. NASA in 2021 awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to develop Starship as a human landing system (HLS) that will return US astronauts to the moon for the first time since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972 as part of the Artemis program of space agencies. The first moon landing of astronauts as part of the Artemis III mission was supposed to take place in December 2025.

However, as SpacePolicyOnline.com reported June 9, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, told a joint meeting of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and the Space Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine of the United States. that the Artemis III mission now probably won’t happen before 2026.

The SpaceX crew continues to clean up debris Tuesday afternoon, April 25, 2023, after the April 20 launch of Starship-Super Heavy extensively damaged the launch pad area. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

That prediction is based on the fact that SpaceX has a lot of orbital flight tests to do before it can safely aboard a moon-bound spacecraft, although the spacecraft are grounded awaiting the results of the FAA’s investigation. he said. Free said he’s often asked whether NASA will meet the 2025 deadline, and his answer is that SpaceX needs to fly before it can get any sort of evaluation.

Since Starship, after launch, would have to refuel in orbit before heading to the moon, SpaceX must demonstrate its ability to build an in-orbit fuel depot and transfer cryogenic (extremely cold) propellants in microgravity conditions. SpaceX also needs to perform a successful uncrewed HLS moon landing before it is ready for the crewed Artemis III mission.

They have a significant number of launches to do and that obviously worries me for the December 2025 date, Free said.

He added that our FAA partners are critical for SpaceX to be able to launch and complete its Starship missions.

We have a fixed-price contract with SpaceX, Free said. Their job is to deliver it to us and I will hold them accountable.

The SpaceX crew continues to clean up debris Tuesday afternoon, April 25, 2023, after the April 20 launch of Starship-Super Heavy extensively damaged the launch pad area. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

The FAA has also been sued by a group of national and local environmental organizations over its alleged failure to fully analyze and mitigate environmental damage resulting from the SpaceX Starship/Super Heavy launch program at Boca Chica. SpaceX last month joined the FAA as a defendant in the lawsuit.

The April 20 launch also resulted in the destruction of SpaceX’s concrete orbital launch pad, dust and debris being transmitted over a large area by the intense thrust of the booster engines.

SpaceX has begun pouring new concrete under the orbital launch pad at Boca Chica and on June 25 conducted a multi-engine test fire of starship SN25, the successor to the one that exploded in the Gulf on April 20.

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