Elon Musk has accused the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of having a “fundamentally broken regulatory structure” after it failed to approve a SpaceX test launch – yet others have warned that rules around safety should not be taken lightly.
This past week, it was expected that Musk’s company, SpaceX, would attempt the latest flight of its prototype steel rocket known as Starship, designed to one day take humans to Mars, from its test site in Boca Chica, Texas.
Last month saw a mostly successful launch of the SN8 prototype, or “serial number 8”, which flew to Starship’s highest altitude yet, 12.5 kilometers, before returning to Earth – although it failed to land successfully, instead exploding when it hit the ground.
This week’s flight of the 50-meter-tall SN9 was expected to be largely the same as that of SN8, albeit to 10 instead of 12.5 kilometers, and hopefully with a successful landing.
However, after strong winds scuppered attempts to launch on Monday, January 25, subsequent attempts to launch later in the week were seemingly halted by the FAA, which grants approval for U.S. launches.
This was despite SpaceX actually putting fuel into the rocket while it waited on the launch pad yesterday, Friday, January 29, possibly expecting to get approval to launch from the FAA at the last minute.
“Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” Musk tweeted on Thursday, January 28, in response to the FAA saying it had postponed Thursday’s launch attempt.
“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.”
However, according to Joey Roulette reporting for The Verge, one of the reasons for the lack of approval was that the explosion of SN8 in December upon landing had actually violated the terms of SpaceX’s launch licence.
“The so-called mishap investigation was opened that week, focusing not only on the explosive landing but on SpaceX’s refusal to stick to the terms of what the FAA authorized,” Roulette wrote, although it was “unclear what part of the test flight violated the FAA license.”
The FAA – which brought in a streamlined licensing process for launches in October 2020 – had also still been evaluating SpaceX’s license application for SN9, which apparently had some changes to SN8, at the time the company was hoping to launch.
“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,” the FAA said in a statement.
“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.”
Some have sided with Musk in the row. David Masten, the CTO of the California-based aerospace startup Masten Space Systems, called the FAA’s regulations “BS” on Twitter.
“Don’t get me wrong, regulation isn’t necessarily bad,” he added. “But sometimes the specific regulations are not right for a situation and may actually promote less safe [sic] rather than more safe.”
But others sprung to the defence of the FAA, particularly in a week that included the anniversary of NASA’s Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986, which killed all seven astronauts on board.
“Starship is not a proven vehicle,” wrote Madison Telles, the Mission Assurance Systems Engineer for the U.K.-owned launch company Virgin Orbit.
“SpaceX has to abide by commercial licensing requirements like everyone else.
“If you value Musk’s opinion over the FAA/protecting public safety, you’re not actually a space enthusiast.”
As of yet it’s unclear what the fallout from this spat will be. SpaceX appears to be preparing to try another launch attempt of Starship SN9 on Monday, February 1, although it’s unclear if it will have FAA approval by then.
It has even begun to roll out its next prototype, SN10, for its test flight in the near-future – captured in some stunning images by photographers.
What is clear is that this episode is likely to stir tensions between regulators and SpaceX fans, many of whom feel that current licensing processes are inadequate to cope with SpaceX’s rapid testing of its Starship vehicle.
But in the wake of the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, others will argue it is important to remember that safety – especially when it comes to human spaceflight – is paramount, no matter a company’s lofty ambitions.
“The process can always be better, of course,” said Jared Zambrano-Stout, the former Chief of Staff for the National Space Council.
“But I think it is a mistake for the industry to publicly beat up on the agency that is working hard to carry out the laws and authorities that Congress has entrusted to it to faithfully execute.”
This article is auto-generated by Algorithm Source: www.forbes.com