FAA denied SpaceX a safety waiver. Its Starship SN8 rocket launched anyway
As SN9 got the green light to fly, the Federal Aviation Administration reveals that its predecessor never did.
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On Dec. 9, 2020, SpaceX sent one of its Starship Mars rocket prototypes, dubbed SN8, on a high-altitude test flight for the first time. The successful launch and flight ended with a dramatic and explosive hard landing, which Elon Musk had warned ahead of time might be the outcome.
On Tuesday, we learned the whole scene came in defiance of the Federal Aviation Administration, the US regulatory agency that oversees much of commercial space activity and licenses SpaceX's Starship prototypes to operate in American airspace.
"Prior to the Starship SN8 test launch in December 2020, SpaceX sought a waiver to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations," reads a statement from an FAA spokesperson. "After the FAA denied the request, SpaceX proceeded with the flight. As a result of this non-compliance, the FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident. All testing that could affect public safety at the Boca Chica, Texas, launch site was suspended until the investigation was completed and the FAA approved the company's corrective actions to protect public safety."
This revelation came on the same morning the FAA announced it finally gave the green light for SN8's successor, SN9, to make its own high-altitude test flight from the company's Boca Chica, Texas, development facility.
SN9 successfully launched and flew Tuesday afternoon and then suffered an explosive crash landing very similar to the final fate of SN8. Tuesday evening, the FAA said it would open and oversee an investigation into SN9's "landing mishap."
FAA later provided more details on the launch of SN8 in December, explaining that "the company proceeded with the launch without demonstrating that the public risk from far field blast overpressure was within the regulatory criteria."
Basically, the FAA is saying SpaceX didn't demonstrate that the risk to the public from a potential explosive blast wave was within legal limits, but it went ahead and launched SN8 anyway.
"The FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident, including a comprehensive review of the company's safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline," an FAA spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "The FAA-approved corrective actions implemented by SpaceX enhanced public safety. Those actions were incorporated into today's SN9 launch. We anticipate taking no further enforcement action on SN8 matter."
So it appears SpaceX launched a prototype rocket without all proper regulatory approvals, and the only consequence was to perform an internal review and have the launch of its next prototype delayed by a few days.
SpaceX didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The launch of SN9 had been repeatedly pushed back during January. Last week it became clear approval from the FAA was the primary holdup, leading Elon Musk to criticize the agency publicly on Twitter.
Nonetheless, the FAA said Friday it was working with SpaceX to approve a modified license for the launch of SN9.
"The corrective actions arising from the SN8 incident are incorporated into the SN9 launch license," the FAA said.
"I am trying to wrap my mind around this right now, and will likely have more to say about it, but I am just in complete shock that a licensee has violated a launch license and there seems to be no repercussions," former FAA official Jared Zambrano-Stout wrote on Twitter. "If a licensee violates the terms of their launch license, they did so knowing that an uninvolved member of the public could have been hurt or killed. That is not exaggeration. They took a calculated risk with your life and property."
An FAA spokesperson said the agency will likely not be providing further comment on the incident.
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