During a Congressional hearing, FAA Associate Administrator Wayne Monteith expressed confidence in SpaceX despite recent disputes with the company over what the FAA says was an unauthorized test launch of the SN8 prototype. SN8 was the first of four prototypes that exploded during test flights that involved launching and then attempting to land them.
Those four test flights provided enough data to make improvements to SN15, which was the first “full-sized” prototype to successfully launch and then land in one piece. Soon after this success, SpaceX announced plans to launch a prototype from its Boca Chica, Texas, facility and bring it down near Hawaii in an orbital test.
“We would not have cleared them to start flight operations again had I not been confident they had modified their procedures effectively and addressed the safety culture issues that we saw,” Monteith said during testimony before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee on Wednesday.
This committee had been looking into the FAA’s role in spaceflight, especially in relation to issues with the speed at which it can divert air traffic for space launches. Especially at issue was the agency’s ability to keep up with the growing market for space launches, which now includes potential customers from both the private and the public sector.
Axiom Space has especially made waves with its plans to launch components of what will eventually become the first privately owned, independently functioning space station and expanding its deal with SpaceX for fully privately crewed spaceflights commanded by retired NASA astronauts like Peggy Whitson. Inspiration4 has also recently finalized its crew for a privately funded spaceflight, which will launch as early as September 15 for a 3-day orbital mission. It remains to be seen, however, whether regulators will create more headaches for SpaceX and its customers with more of the regulatory delays that seem to have given Elon Musk and his companies headaches lately.
Elon Musk has accused the FAA of apparently being stuck in the 1960s, when government agencies like NASA had a monopoly on space launches, while the FAA was investigating safety issues related to the test flights that had ended in such a fiery fashion.
At the time, Monteith had criticized SpaceX’s safety culture, saying that it had launched the now-lost SN8 prototype “based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions.’” Especially glaring assumptions included the idea “that the inspector did not have the latest information.” He accused the company of ignoring a safety inspector’s advice to not launch SN8.
Monteith now says that he is confident that SpaceX has fixed the safety-culture issues. It’s even possible that SpaceX has swung too far in the other direction, considering that Cameron County officials recently alleged in a letter to SpaceX that its personnel illegally closed public roads and beaches near its launch facility. Debris from the failed tests have previously rained down on a nearby beach. SpaceX blamed the issue on overzealous security guards.
SpaceX has not been invited to send a representative to the hearing. The United Launch Alliance and Virgin Galactic sent representatives. SpaceX has not issued a comment on Monteith’s comments at the hearing or on being shut out. The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee did not publicly release a reason for this notable exclusion.