What’s really going on with Elon Musk, the FAA, and Starship?
January 30, 2021
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by admin

Starship prototype SN9 has not launched yet.
Enlarge / Starship prototype SN9 has not launched yet.


There were moments of high drama on Thursday afternoon, and again Friday morning, in South Texas. For two days in a row, SpaceX evacuated the handful of residents remaining in Boca Chica Village. Sheriff’s deputies cleared beaches and closed roads. And at the company’s launch site, a Starship rocket prototype underwent preparations for launch.

The vehicle was ready, with ground equipment venting away. The winds were light. And then—nothing. As the hours ticked by, the rocket remained on the ground. Unfortunately for SpaceX, the Federal Aviation Administration had not given its final approval to launch. It all made for quite a South Texas Showdown.

SpaceX, which officially said it was targeting a launch attempt on Thursday, has not publicly commented on what happened. Nor has the FAA provided specifics on what transpired other than offering a generic statement: “We will continue working with SpaceX to resolve outstanding safety issues before we approve the next test flight.”

Although we don’t know the precise details of why an approval did not come, it is helpful to understand what the FAA is trying to do in terms of regulating launch licenses and what SpaceX must do to comply. This allows us to make some informed guesses about what is holding up the launch of SN9, which will now occur no earlier than Monday. To put together this FAQ, Ars spoke with experts in mission assurance and FAA rules.

Why is the FAA involved in launch?

It is the federal agency with the authority to license commercial space launches by US companies. The FAA is less concerned with the mission goals themselves and more about protecting the lives and property near the launch site, as well as the air space above. Bottom line: the FAA would not delay a flight test unless there was a cause for public safety concern.

How does SpaceX get approval to launch? 

For each launch of its experimental Starship vehicle, SpaceX must obtain approval from the FAA in advance. The rules for doing so are clearly spelled out in the Code of Federal Regulations in a series of parts and rules. It is the job of SpaceX to convince the FAA that its vehicle is worthy of flight, that it has established a large enough safety corridor, and that it has made the proper notifications. The relevant part of the code is 431.31, which says the FAA safety review will determine whether a company’s vehicle can launch and land “without jeopardizing public health and safety and the safety of property.” There is typically a Launch Readiness Review within 48 hours of flight to prove this.

What happens if safety approval is denied?

According to the regulations, “The FAA notifies an applicant, in writing, if the FAA has denied safety approval for an RLV mission license application. The notice states the reasons for the FAA’s determination. The applicant may respond to the reasons for the determination and request reconsideration.” It seems likely that we are now in the process of SpaceX obtaining reconsideration.

But hadn’t the FAA already issued “Temporary Flight Restrictions” for Thursday and Friday?

Yes, the FAA had posted air space restrictions (see here for a current list) for SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch site. However, these restrictions are not indicative of FAA approval but rather a warning that air space may be locked out at a certain time. (It is similar for NOTAMs for airmen).

So how do we know a company has received a launch approval?

There is nowhere on the Internet to search for a mission-specific Starship launch approval. So it becomes public knowledge only if SpaceX discloses it or if a launch actually happens.

If SpaceX got permission for SN8 in December, what is the holdup for SN9?

While the high-altitude flight profile for SN9 is similar to the flight made by SN8, it is expected to go only to 10km instead of 12.5km. A mission-specific launch approval must account for every change in details, requiring new analyses, and an updated safety corridor. Perhaps something happened during the SN8 flight that captured the FAA’s attention and provoked extra scrutiny. It is also possible that a significant issue arose between the flights of SN8 and SN9.

Was SpaceX trying to intimidate the FAA by fueling Starship for a potential launch?

Without knowing SpaceX’s intentions, it’s impossible to answer this. The company may simply have been conducting a wet-dress rehearsal test. But any intimidation such as propellant loading, or Elon Musk’s frustration on Twitter, would be unlikely to work on Wayne Monteith, the FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation. He is a well-regarded official, not known to be influenced by tweets.

Is the FAA trying to hold SpaceX back?

No. It’s in the FAA’s interest to license and promote commercial space activities. However, the federal agency is overworked, as an increasing number of companies are seeking licenses. It’s likely that the FAA will be bringing additional resources to bear on the remaining issues with the Starship launch in South Texas to try to get the company flying.

Are the current licensing regulations too burdensome?

Probably. There are a lot of companies trying to do responsive space, and the FAA is trying to streamline the licensing process. It’s looking to staff up to increase its capability to review launch applications. The FAA took a step toward being more responsive in December by issuing a final rule on launch and re-entry licensing requirements. But this is an ongoing process.

Could SpaceX just launch offshore to avoid this?

SpaceX did recently acquire two very large offshore platforms to launch and land its Starship vehicle from. However, it did not do this to skirt FAA licensing. Similar to SeaLaunch, the company would still operate under FAA regulations. Trying to launch in international waters, if anything, would probably make it more difficult for SpaceX from a regulatory standpoint.

What happens if SpaceX launches without approval?

Uhh, no, the company is not going to go rogue. And in addition to licensing commercial launches, the FAA is also conducting an environmental review of SpaceX’s facility in South Texas for its suitability for Starship and Super Heavy launches.

So what happens next?

It’s likely that cooler heads prevail, and SpaceX and the FAA work together on Friday and over the weekend to secure needed permissions. Perhaps Musk will invite Monteith to view the launch from the company’s mission control facility in South Texas. In any case, this is neither the first rodeo for Musk or Monteith, and the smart money is on them working this out.

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