SpaceX’s orbital Florida Starship yard suffers damage after catching fire

SpaceX's Florida Starship prototype has made rapid progress over the last two or so months, but speedy development is always a balance between safety, efficiency, and efficacy. (Pauline Acalin, June 23rd)

Documented on Twitch and covered by several local reporters and photographers, an accident at SpaceX’s Florida Starship campus led to a minor fire that reportedly caused $50K-$100K of damage.

Per information disclosed by the Cocoa Fire Department after quickly responding to the fire, this may actually be SpaceX’s second fire at its Florida Starship facilities in recent months, potentially adding up to more than $650,000 in damages. Indicative of scrappy development program skirting the edges of safety, sustainability, and efficiency, SpaceX – as described by company executives – is pushing to get its next-gen Starship/Super Heavy rocket orbital as quickly as possible. These fire(s) serve as a reminder that – especially for something as complex as orbital-class rocket production – that speedy rocket development is a major challenge.

“This afternoon, a small fire occurred at a SpaceX facility in Cocoa, Florida. The fire was contained to a sea van (shipping container) on site and extinguished thanks to the Cocoa Fire Department, which responded within minutes. There were no injuries as a result of the fire, and the cause is under investigation.” – SpaceX, July 8th

Most importantly, just based on a handful of Twitch streams that happened to capture the fire, it was relegated to an on-site shipping container that also appeared to contain the fire. Anything inside the container has likely been rendered into scrap, but SpaceX’s Florida Starship segments have likely escaped without a scratch. It’s unclear what started the fire but the combination of Florida’s extreme heat and humidity, the serious power requirements of steel welding, plasma cutting, and other industrial work, and the scrappy and speed-focused nature of SpaceX’s Starship program are an excellent start.

In a generic example scenario, some miscellaneous packing/construction materials or welding supplies could have been ignited by an electrical short inside the container. Whatever the cause, it can likely be traced back one way or another to human error. In heavy industry, the most common failure modes can be found as managers rush employees and employees have to find ways (often corner-cutting and/or lax safety) to meet unrealistic timelines with a finite workforce and only so many hours in a day. Regardless, the Starship prototype is safe and SpaceX will hopefully learn from this minor mishap and prevent it from reoccurring.

Simultaneously, SpaceX is building a similar but different orbital Starship prototype and operating a lower-fidelity Starhopper test article at its companion Boca Chica, Texas facilities. Any safety-related knowledge learned in Florida will almost certainly be transmitted to Texas, theoretically preventing the same failure mode from reoccurring at any SpaceX facility – not just the one that suffered damage. Each campus is technically competing to build the better orbital Starship prototype as fast as possible, but information will inevitably be shared between the teams if major breakthroughs or safety-critical discoveries are made on the path to orbit.

Ultimately, July 8th’s fire is just a minor setback along the path to the first flights of one or both of SpaceX’s orbital Starship prototypes, hopefully culminating in high-speed, suborbital tests fairly soon and the first Super Heavy-boosted orbital launches in 2020. Stumbles are inevitable for such a complex, envelope-pushing development program – all that matters is that those mistakes are learned from and preempted in the future.

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SpaceX’s orbital Florida Starship yard suffers damage after catching fire
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