Elon Musk’s SpaceX has found itself in the news again as the first high-altitude test flight of American aerospace manufacturer’s Starship rocket in December, which launched successfully but exploded during landing, violated the terms of its Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test license. The Verge report says that both the landing explosion and license violation have prompted a formal investigation by the FAA, which will see Musk’s hasty Mars rocket test campaign put under extra scrutiny.
The December test launch of the “Serial Number 8” (SN8) Starship prototype at the Texas facilities of the company was hailed by Musk as a success: “Mars, here we come!!” the chief executive tweeted moments after the rocket exploded on its landing. The FAA, which issues licenses for private launches and oversees ground safety, was not so happy.
Two people familiar with the matter have said that the investigation was opened that week, focusing not only on the botched landing attempt but on SpaceX’s refusal to stick to the terms of what the FAA authorized. However, it was unclear what part of the test flight violated the FAA license.
“The FAA will continue to work with SpaceX to evaluate additional information provided by the company as part of its application to modify its launch license,” FAA spokesman Steve Kulm said Friday, according to The Verge. “While we recognize the importance of moving quickly to foster growth and innovation in commercial space, the FAA will not compromise its responsibility to protect public safety. We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements.”
SpaceX’s latest “SN9” Starship test attempt has been held up due to the heightened scrutiny from regulators after the launchpad spectacle. The SN9 is a shiny steel alloy, 16-story-tall rocket. It was loaded with fuel and ready to fly, but the FAA officials were still going through their license review process for the test at the time because of several changes SpaceX made in its license application, a source said. Musk took to Twitter after being frustrated with the process.
“Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” he tweeted on Thursday. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
The FAA and SpaceX see a tension between them escalating due to the license violation (and subsequent license review process). For years, Musk and others in the space industry have bemoaned the world’s biggest transportation agency’s launch licensing framework as innovation and competition in space skyrockets. In response, the US Department of Transportation — which delegates its launch oversight duties to the FAA — unveiled new regulations for streamlined launch licensing last year. The regulations are yet to go into effect.
In the meantime, Musk’s tweet, calling out the FAA was just another example of the billionaire’s disgruntled attitude toward regulators that deal with his businesses’ rapid rate of development.
SpaceX, founded by Musk in 2002, has sued the Air Force twice, in 2014 and 2018. In 2018, when he was fined $20 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), for allegedly misleading Tesla investors via a tweet, Musk told 60 Minutes, “I do not respect the SEC. I do not respect them.”
A few hours before the SN8 Starship test, while Musk was in Texas securing approval for the FAA license that SpaceX ultimately violated, The Wall Street Journal had asked Musk in a virtual interview about what role the government should play regulating innovation. Musk replied: “A lot of the time, the best thing the government can do is just get out of the way.”