Back in December 2020, SpaceX staged a test in which it launched a rocket that’s meant to one day bring us closer to Mars than ever before. Then, on its way back down to earth, it exploded.
When it comes to ambitious test flights like that of the 16-story-tall SN8 Starship, “success” is relative. Even after the prototype exploded, SpaceX deemed the record-setting height the rocket ascended to a triumph, with CEO Elon Musk tweeting out a celebratory, “Mars, here we come!!”
But it seems not everyone was as enthused about the Starship’s blaze of glory.
Soon after, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — responsible for ensuring the safety of such spaceship launches — opened up an investigation into SpaceX’s test flight. The agency found that the company had violated parts of its launch license, according to The Verge. Two sources “familiar with the incident” specified that the investigation looked into both the explosive landing and whether or not SpaceX complied with the FAA’s guidelines.
The newly uncovered violation helps to explain some of the recent tensions bubbling up between Musk and the FAA.
On Thursday, the FAA posted an advisory on its website that SpaceX’s subsequent SN9 prototype, set to launch on that day (Jan. 28), had been postponed. Musk railed against the agency on Twitter, claiming that “the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure. 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.”
Despite Musk’s online outburst, though, FAA spokesperson Steve Kulm told The Verge that, “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.” But he also cautioned: “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.”
Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.
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.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 28, 2021
The feud between Musk and the FAA sparked debate among space exploration enthusiasts. Those defending the FAA agreed with its prioritization of safety, while those on Musk’s side argued that the regulations were outdated government red tape inhibiting more rapid innovation.
Eric Berger, Senior Space Reporter at Ars Technica, noted in a thread that without more information, it’s hard to determine who’s “right” or “wrong” in the situation. Musk is known to get combative whenever he feels he’s been “wronged.” But we don’t have any evidence to suggest the FAA is withholding approval of SpaceX’s next launch for any “nefarious” reasons, and it’s been pretty permissive toward Musk so far. Even the FAA itself admits that an updated licensing process is needed for this new age of privatized space exploration. But it also must put safety above all else.
As Madison Telles, an engineer at Virgin Orbit pointed out, it’s also important to remember that the “Starship is not a proven vehicle,” so it needs to abide by “commercial licensing requirements like everyone else.”
So I don’t see any evidence of the government or system blocking SpaceX for some nefarious reason. At the same time, Musk has a point that FAA space needs to become more responsive. They realize this, and have updated their launch licensing: https://t.co/ae5FZCdkMI
— Eric Berger (@SciGuySpace) January 29, 2021
Despite everything, SpaceX appears to be barreling on ahead. Two versions of the Starship were seen awaiting launch at its Boca Chica, Texas facility long after the FAA posted about the delay. The SN9 is now scheduled for Monday, Feb. 1, according to Forbes. It remains to be seen whether the FAA will give its approval by then, though.
“We will approve the modification [to the launch license] only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements,” Klum said in his statement to the Verge.
Regardless of whether the rocket is a go or a no, though, we’re willing to bet you’ll hear all about it from Musk on Twitter.