Twitter Explodes as SpaceX Doesn’t Get License to Launch Starship SN9

Starship SN8 takes off from Boca Chica, Texas. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

SpaceX was not able to conduct a planned flight test of its SN9 Starship vehicle at Boca Chica in Texas this week because it didn’t have a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

This time, instead of a rocket exploding, Twitter did.

Information about the cause of the delay was sparse, but that didn’t stop people from speculating and attacking the FAA for dragging its feet, even sabotaging the company’s efforts. Some darkly pointed the finger at the new Biden Administration without any actual evidence to back up their theory.

On Thursday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk weighed in on Twitter to blame the agency’s bureaucracy.

Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure. 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.

Oh, my. Humanity, doomed to remain a single-planet species until the inevitable apocalypse that Musk regularly mentions wipes out all life on Earth. Humanity extinguished, all due to the FAA. That’s a hell of a burden to carry. I don’t know how FAA employees can sleep at night knowing they’re dooming humanity with their paperwork.

It’s not entirely clear why Musk meant when he claimed the FAA’s aviation division is fine. If he’s talking about the same division that certified the 737 Max, he has a strange definition of fine. It’s hard to think about flying on an airplane without wondering about what else the FAA missed on other planes.

Musk is basically right about FAA’s regulations making multiple launches more difficult. New rules have been approved to streamline the licensing process, but they haven’t gone into effect yet.

For its part, the FAA issued the following statement.

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. 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.

It’s a sufficiently vague statement that raises more questions than it answers. What modification did SpaceX make in its application? What information does the FAA need? What safety and regulatory requirements does the agency have concerns about?

Starship SN8 explodes on impact. (Credit: SpaceX webcast)

Citing unidentified sources, The Verge reports that the flight of the SN8 Starship vehicle in December violated the terms of the license the FAA issued for that test. The vehicle crashed and exploded into a fireball while attempting to land.

Both the landing explosion and license violation prompted a formal investigation by the FAA, driving regulators to put extra scrutiny on Elon Musk’s hasty Mars rocket test campaign….

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, the two people said. It was unclear what part of the test flight violated the FAA license, and an FAA spokesman declined to specify in a statement to The Verge.

If the report is true, then there’s more here than just ponderous FAA bureaucracy. Perhaps in time we’ll learn more specifics about what is holding up the launch license.

SpaceX has rescheduled the flight test for Monday, Feb. 1, weather and license permitting.