Elon Musk’s SpaceX ignored two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that launching high-altitude Starship prototypes would violate its launch license – but the company went ahead with the launch anyway.
SpaceX’s violation of its license was “inconsistent with a strong safety culture,” the FAA’s space division chief Wayne Monteith wrote in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, as The Verge reports.
“Although the report states that all SpaceX parties believed that such risk was sufficiently low to comply with regulatory criteria, SpaceX used analytical methods that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window.”
SpaceX told the FAA that the agency’s software was “a source of frustration” and was apparently “shown to be inaccurate at times or overly conservative”. SpaceX did not respond to The Independent’s requests for comment.
The private space company argued that its SN8 rocket, which launched and crashed in December 2020, was safe to fly, according to an apparent five-page report from SpaceX. The FAA models showed that weather conditions like wind speed could make its shockwave a danger to nearby homes.
SpaceX asked the FAA to waive a safety countdown, but the FAA rejected it. Rather than keep to those safety restrictions, SpaceX restarted the launch countdown, apparently claiming that its own data was sufficient. SpaceX was not cleared for launch, and 15 minutes before liftoff was told by the FAA that “the weather data provided was not sufficient.” SpaceX apparently ignored this warning because they “assumed that the inspector did not have the latest information,” according to the apparent report.
The FAA said that SpaceX proceeded with the launch – which failed – “based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions,’ rather than procedural checks and positive affirmations.” Mr Monteith said that the actions “show[ed] a concerning lack of operational control and process discipline that is inconsistent with a strong safety culture” and ordered the company to reevaluate its safety procedures.
FAA investigators were apparently unable to determine whether SpaceX’s violation of its license was intentional, which is partly why the review did not result in stronger consequences. The agency apparently believed that a two-month investigation, grounding Starship, would be a more effective penalty.
Whether that is true is unclear, but SpaceX’s behaviour in the aftermath suggests that it was not. The FAA insisted that an onsite inspector should be physically present in Texas for every Starship prototype launch, following the space company’s breach, but Mr Musk tweeted that “the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure” in January 2021.
“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,” he added.
Mr Musk also seemingly used his Twitter account to direct criticism towards the FAA in March, prior to the launch of the SN11 prototype, after an FAA inspector left town for the weekend before liftoff. SpaceX emailed the inspector on Sunday to return on the following Monday, but the inspector originally missed the email, forcing them to take a flight back on Monday morning.
“FAA inspector unable to reach Starbase in time for launch today,” Musk wrote on Twitter on the Monday. The SN11 rocket, with inspector present, launched on Tuesday.
In the months following, SpaceX has been awarded billion-dollar government contracts to put humans on the Moon, and to build the backbone of the subsequent base.
“SpaceX sought a waiver to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations for its Starship SN8 launch in December 2020. The FAA denied the waiver request. The on-site FAA safety inspector warned throughout the launch process that SpaceX was at risk of noncompliance. SpaceX decided to launch without FAA authorization”, the FAA told The Independent in a statement.
“The FAA took immediate action after the noncompliant launch, including directing a 7-week pause in Starship launch operations. FAA Administrator Steve Dickson emphasized the agency’s safety responsibility on a March 12 call with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, making clear that he expects SpaceX to develop and foster a robust safety culture that strictly follows FAA rules.”
The Independent has contacted the agency for more information on the role, if any, CEO Elon Musk took in pushing the launch of SN8, and whether it feels SpaceX now has a “strong safety culture” and the allegations the space company has made against the quality of its software.
The FAA is currently facing scrutiny from Congress for how it handled SpaceX’s violation of its launch license, with lawmakers calling on the agency to “resist any potential undue influence on launch safety decision-making” by taking “all the time and actions necessary” to evaluate proposed launches. In March, the FAA said that it was “in receipt of the letter and will respond directly to the committee.” The Independent has contacted the agency for further comment.