SpaceX faces scrutiny over launch safety requirements

30 Mar 2021

Starship SN8 high-altitude flight test. Image: SpaceX/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

US aviation regulators had said earlier this year that SpaceX violated its test licence during the launch of Starship SN8 in December 2020.

The US House Committee for Transport and Infrastructure is investigating a SpaceX launch that took place last year, according to Reuters.

The company launched its Starship SN8 prototype from its rocket facility in Boca Chica, Texas, in early December. While the launch itself was deemed a success in terms of gathering the data necessary from the test, the prototype craft exploded in a fireball during landing.

The launch sparked an investigation by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In February 2021, the FAA said SpaceX had defied public safety rules on SN8 and had launched “without demonstrating that the public risk from far field blast overpressure was within the regulatory criteria”.

The FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident and review its safety processes. The regulatory body said SpaceX implemented corrective actions that enhanced public safety for the SN9 launch in February, and that it anticipated taking “no further enforcement action” on the SN8 launch.

Serious questions

Now, US House transportation committee chair Peter DeFazio and representative Rick Larsen have reportedly said in a letter to the FAA that SpaceX launch activities “raise serious questions”, given the high-risk nature of the industry.

“We are disappointed that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action,” they added, according to the Reuters report.

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SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been critical of the FAA over its regulations, tweeting earlier this year that its space division has “a fundamentally broken regulatory structure”.

The FAA said on Monday (29 March) that it revised the SpaceX Starship license and now requires an FAA safety inspector to be present for every flight at the Boca Chica site in Texas.

“This is the result of FAA’s continuing oversight of SpaceX to ensure compliance with federal regulations to protect public safety, including issues arising from the SN8 launch in December 2020,” it said.

“SpaceX must provide adequate notice of its launch schedule to allow for a FAA safety inspector to travel to Boca Chica.”

The next Starship launch, SN11, is potentially expected to take place today (30 March). Musk tweeted yesterday that an FAA inspector had been unable to reach the base for a launch on that day, and that it was being postponed.

Starship SN8 high-altitude flight test. Image: SpaceX/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com