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US watchdog grounds SpaceX Starship after that explosion

Musk loyalists said launch wasn't a failure. Tell that to folks, wildlife covered in dust, ash, debris

America's Federal Aviation Administration has grounded SpaceX's Starship to conduct a safety investigation after the heavy-lift rocket destroyed a chunk of the launch pad, malfunctioned, and had to be blown up mid-test.

SpaceX was unable to get Starship, said to be the world's most powerful rocket, into orbit during that experiment last week. The rocket started rotating mid-air when it failed to break free of its booster shortly after takeoff on April 20. It fell uncontrollably back to Earth, and was deliberately detonated over Boca Chica, Texas, for safety reasons within minutes of launch. 

Before it even got to that point, Starship had damaged the pad and nearby space center infrastructure during its blastoff, and scattered ash and dust over wildlife areas and a nearby town.

A video recording of the flight showed chunks of concrete being kicked up by the launch and smashing the windows of a car, and created a cloud of ash and dirt. The stuff descended onto Port Isabel, where residents reported hearing the roar of Starship's engines and feeling the ground shake.

Here's an eyewitness view of the launch aftermath.

"An anomaly occurred during the ascent and prior to stage separation resulting in a loss of the vehicle," a representative from the FAA told The Register in a statement.

"No injuries or public property damage have been reported. The FAA will oversee the mishap investigation of the Starship / Super Heavy test mission."

All future test flights of the Starship rocket are on pause for now as officials probe the fallout, the impact of the latest explosion, and any additional damage to the launch pad. It's not clear when SpaceX will be allowed to resume its launch program. CEO Elon Musk said SpaceX started building a water-cooled steel plate to go underneath the vehicle's launch mount, which would protect or reinforce the pad from the powerful machine above it, but it wasn't ready in time for last week's flight attempt. 

Musk said SpaceX would be ready to launch Starship again in one to two month. "A return to flight of the Starship / Super Heavy vehicle is based on the FAA determining that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety. This is standard practice for all mishap investigations," the FAA spokesperson told us. 

SpaceX doesn't have a great track record for Starship flights; most of its rockets have exploded and only one has managed to successfully fly and land safely in one piece. The company built its super-heavy lift launch vehicle to send heavier payloads into space, including a crew of astronauts for NASA's Artemis mission to the Moon currently scheduled for 2027, maybe.

On Wednesday, SpaceX scrubbed its latest Falcon 9 flight tasked with carrying its latest batch of Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit, due to landing concerns with the rocket. ®

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