The House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee says it is probing recent the recent failures of SpaceX’s Starship prototypes that could have violated regulatory safety standards and its test license. The FAA is normally in charge of enforcing regulations related to space launches — a matter that has occasionally drawn sharp criticism from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk.
The FAA has previously ruled that SpaceX failed to demonstrate that the risk from “far field blast overpressure” was within regulatory limits before the test launch of the prototype SN8. According to FAA statements on the matter, overpressure can create a shock wave that could potentially cause damage such as broken windows in houses located in nearby cities like Boca Chica.
According to publicly available information, no member of SpaceX’s staff or the general public was injured or killed in any of the prototype failures. Despite the FAA’s criticism of SpaceX’s handling of public safety, it chose not to conduct an independent review. This drew criticism for House of Representatives Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio and Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen in a letter to the FAA.
The letter said that “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.”
Neither SpaceX nor the FAA has responded to the letter or the Transportation Committee’s intention to probe the matter on its own. In February, the FAA said only that SpaceX should take public safety more seriously, including making improvements to “operational decision-making and process discipline.”
It also noted that SpaceX had made some corrections of issues related to the loss of SN8 before conducting the launch test of SN9 in early February. The FAA seems to have had little to say about the loss of SN10 shortly after landing, and the loss of SN11 in another high-altitude test launch happened just this morning.
Elon Musk, of course, was annoyed by the brief delay in SpaceX’s test launch schedule, which he sees as an important, if moderately explosive, part of his plans to start launching Starships to Mars over the course of the next decade. He also had to reschedule the SN11 launch from Monday to today due to the tardiness of an FAA inspector:
Reasons for the tardiness could range from the inspector having been stuck in traffic to the FAA trying to flex its muscles with Elon Musk by being “fashionably late”. The amount of attention that SpaceX has gotten from regulators has led to him complaining that they were a major holdup in his plans to establish a permanent Martian base.
It is also unknown what the House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s goals for the hearing are, other than possibly drawing away important SpaceX personnel away from their jobs to answer questions about the Starship prototype explosions when they should be working on fixing the likely engine-related issues that caused them. Although Congress often says that these hearings are meant to provide oversight, anyone who watches them on CSPAN may have noticed that they look more like chances for politicians to grandstand and lecture the witnesses before asking any questions.
Others, such as the Mars Society’s Robert Zubrin, have chosen to make presentations in front of Congressional hearings as a chance to educate lawmakers about the benefits of crewed missions to Mars and eventual Martian settlements.
Will Elon Musk or a senior SpaceX official appear before Congress’ latest hearing on space-related activities? It remains to be seen, although Musk himself may consider appearances before Congressional committees as a “been there, done that” sort of thing, as the below video shows: