FAA-SpaceX Dustup Over Starship Test Flight

FAA-SpaceX Dustup Over Starship Test Flight

SpaceX and the FAA are at odds over the next test of a Starship prototype at the company’s Boca Chica, TX facility.  SpaceX was ready to do the test two days ago, but did not have the FAA’s permission. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk took to Twitter to chastise the FAA’s commercial space launch office, but now a complex story has emerged about why the company is under increased scrutiny.

The prototype Starships are identified by their Serial Numbers (SN). The most recent, SN8, completed some amazing in-flight maneuvers during a December 9 test flight, but the ending did not go well.

These reusable vehicles follow a flight profile called a “hop” where they lift off a launch pad, attain a certain altitude, then come back down and land on a different pad nearby.

SN8 did not slow down enough, however, and hit the ground hard, exploding into a massive fireball — jokingly referred to as a Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly (RUD).

Musk and most of the space launch community nonetheless hailed the test as a great success because of all that preceded the RUD.  SpaceX already had the next two test vehicles, SN9 and SN10, ready to go and is eager to try again.

Last week, it announced SN9 might fly as early as Thursday, January 28, and promised a live webcast.

Most tests at Boca Chica have been available for public viewing only because of the diligent efforts of amateurs with their own cameras trained on the test site for hours and hours waiting to see what might happen on a given day. The website NASASpaceflight.com provides extensive coverage based on information from a local resident, Mary (@BocaChicaGal), who gets alerts when she must evacuate her home or may return to it, and who provides some of the camera coverage.  Local notices of when the road to the test site will be open or closed plus the FAA’s Temporary Flight Restrictions (TFRs) also offer hints as to when tests might occur.

SpaceX’s unusual public announcement that the test could take place on January 28 and offer of a webcast suggested everything was in order, but it turned out the company did yet not have permission from the FAA.

The FAA not only must clear the airspace (which it did), but the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) must approve the launch pursuant to the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act and its amendments.  That law assigns the Department of Transportation, of which FAA/AST is part, responsibility for regulating, facilitating and promoting the commercial space launch and reentry business, including ensuring public (“third party”) safety.  It also indemnifies commercial space launch companies from certain levels of financial responsibility for third-party injuries or property damage if there is an accident, meaning taxpayers would have to pay a portion of those costs, although no such claims have been made so far.

On Thursday, SpaceX proceeded as though approval would be granted that day. When it was not, Musk complained via Twitter.

He rescheduled the flight for yesterday, but approval also was not granted by then.  Instead, he rolled out SN10 so both prototype Starships are now sitting outside at the test site ready to go and tweeted a photo. Whether or not he intended it as a signal of impatience to the FAA, the photo elated the Twitterverse, with more than 36,000 retweets and 478,000 likes.

Today, reporter Joey Roulette writing for The Verge revealed that one reason the FAA does not want to be rushed is because SpaceX violated its license for the SN8 flight. Citing two people familiar with the incident, Roulette reports that both the RUD and the license violation, which was not specified, are driving FAA to look more closely at what the company is doing at Boca Chica.

In a subsequent Twitter thread, Jared Zambrano-Stout, an AST official before joining the staff of President Trump’s National Space Council and later the Meeks, Butera & Israel law firm, pushed back against suggestions by some SpaceX fans that the FAA might be deliberately slowing SpaceX’s pace.

At the moment, the SpaceX website says the test could be as “As early as Monday, February 1.”  The goal is to reach 10 kilometers and land successfully. The SN8 test was to 12.5 kilometers, although the company did not indicate if it attained that height or why it is lower this time.

Starship is the second stage of SpaceX’s transportation system to take people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. It is both a rocket stage and crew quarters (or a cargo container) that not only will travel between solar system bodies, but land on them. The reusable first stage, Super Heavy, is in development and has not been tested yet.

Artist’s illustration of Starship landing near a lunar outpost. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX’s Starship is one of three contenders for NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) contracts as part of the Artemis program to return humans to the Moon by 2024 as the first step in long-term sustainable exploration and utilization of the lunar surface. The other two are Blue Origin’s National Team (with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper) and Dynetics.  All three won 10-month study contracts from NASA last year with a plan to choose one or two for further development this spring. Congress provided only 25 percent of the requested HLS funding for FY2021, however, and the Biden Administration has not yet indicated if it will keep to the 2024 schedule.

SpaceX currently launches the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets and routinely receives FAA licenses for them. It conducted 26 launches in 2020 and two more have taken place already this year.  Another is on the launch pad in Florida right now and could also fly on Monday.

The FAA recently modernized and streamlined its commercial space launch and reentry regulations. They go into effect 90 days after publication in the Federal Register, which was on December 10.


Note: this article has been updated.  An earlier version stated that SpaceX did not provide its own live webcast of the SN8 test, but a reader forwarded a tweet from SpaceX at the time indicating that it did.

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