SpaceX Lacked FAA Approval for Launch That Ended in Fireball

Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. went ahead with a December test launch of its massive Starship rocket even though federal regulators denied the company a required safety waiver.

SpaceX had asked to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by U.S. regulations for the Dec. 9 test, the Federal Aviation Administration said in an email Tuesday. The agency turned down the request, but the company proceeded anyway, the FAA said, the same day the agency approved a license for SpaceX to fly its next prototype.

The December flight ended in a fireball when SpaceX’s Starship SN-8 prototype malfunctioned on landing.

The noncompliance is what prompted the regulator to delay a Jan. 28 test of another Starship rocket at SpaceX’s launch facility in Boca Chica, Texas. That decision triggered an angry tweet from Musk, who accused the FAA of having “a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.”

The FAA, which oversees commercial space operations, said Tuesday that it has determined that SpaceX now complies with federal regulations and can proceed with its launch plans. The company was preparing for a Tuesday test of a Starship prototype called SN-9, and Boca Chica Village near the launch site would be evacuated, SpaceX said.

The FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the December incident and suspended testing until it was completed. The unspecified corrective actions resulting from the earlier failure were incorporated into the new launch license, the FAA said.

A SpaceX spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment on the FAA statement.

The apparent lack of an FAA enforcement action is puzzling, said Jared Stout, a former official in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and chief of staff of the National Space Council during the Trump administration. It’s possible the agency declined to publicize an action it took but “I cannot think of a good reason why they would do that,” he said.

The FAA didn’t immediately respond to a request to comment on whether it would take any enforcement action. It often takes months or years for the agency to build a legal case for imposing fines or other sanctions in the event of a violation.

Enforcement actions show other aerospace companies that “there are repercussions for violating a launch license” and to enforce the parameters of a license, which details what a launch operator can and can’t do, said Stout, who is a lobbyist with the Washington DC firm of Meeks, Butera & Israel.

“Launch licenses are not rubber stamps, they are there to protect the public,” Stout said. “They are there to ensure that the long-term viability of the launch industry is intact.”

In the December test, the Starship successfully ascended and was stable throughout its nearly seven-minute flight. But low pressure in a fuel tank caused the spacecraft to land too rapidly, resulting in the explosion at touchdown.

SpaceX last week unveiled its SN-10 prototype, which is parked beside the SN-9. The company hasn’t said when the SN-10 might be ready to fly.

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