FAA Investigates SpaceX Starship Tests

The FAA is reportedly investigating the issues that led to the explosion of SpaceX’s SN8 Starship prototype, which occurred in December 2020 in what was otherwise an apparently nominal test of the company’s planned “heavy-duty” rocket.

Elon Musk had given the SN8 test a slim chance of going completely perfectly and seemed publicly happy with the results despite the explosion during the attempted landing. The test flight had given SpaceX’s engineers plenty of good data to work with and the company still had the SN9 and SN10 prototypes ready to go. The two prototypes had been spotted set up on neighboring stands at SpaceX’s test site in Boca Chica.

The FAA is also looking into possible violations of SpaceX’s test license, although the regulators have not publicly released details of the alleged violations. The investigation is likely to cause delays in the test schedule for the Starship rocket. SpaceX had intended to conduct a high-altitude test flight of SN9 this week, but that has apparently been scrubbed.

Despite the FAA’s “borking” of SpaceX’s planned test schedule, SpaceX anticipates that it could conduct the planned SN9 test flight as early as February 1 if the FAA gives it the green light. This new date may be somewhat unlikely, considering that most government employees do not work on weekends and the FAA could make what it says are safety issues out to be more complicated than they appeared at first glance.

“We will continue working with SpaceX to resolve outstanding safety issues before we approve the next test flight. … 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,” an FAA spokesperson said in communications with media outlets.

The delays imposed by the FAA could just as easily be interpreted as government regulators flexing their muscles in an industry where the occasional rocket explosion is considered par for the course and most testing of new rocket models are done at launch sites like SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility, which tend to be far enough away from cities that an explosion upon landing would not be considered a serious safety hazard.

For the most part, the failures have been unmanned rockets that were used to launch satellites or as part of a test program like SpaceX’s Starship prototypes. One early rocket failure, officially known as Vanguard, came to be referred to as “Flopnik” and “Kaputnik” due to the pre-launch expectation that it would be the United States’ answer to the Soviet Union’s Sputnik.

Elon Musk was highly critical of the delays imposed by the FAA for an incident in which there were no casualties:

His impatience may be warranted, considering that SpaceX has recently received regulatory approval to launch the Starship rocket in Texas. Musk has set ambitious goals for SpaceX that includes crewed flights to the Moon and Mars and eventual human settlements on Mars. He may be concerned that the FAA’s actions may be an early warning that government regulators can put up some serious roadblocks in the path to his goals.