SpaceX’s first high-altitude test flight of its Starship rocket, which launched successfully but exploded in a botched landing attempt in December, violated the terms of its Federal Aviation Administration test license, according to two people familiar with the incident. 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 December test launch of the “Serial Number 8” Starship prototype at SpaceX’s Boca Chica, Texas, facilities was hailed by Musk as a success: “Mars, here we come!!” the chief executive tweeted moments after the rocket exploded on its landing, celebrating SN8’s successful 8-mile-high ascent with his followers. The FAA, which oversees ground safety and issues licenses for private launches, was not so happy.
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.
“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,” FAA spokesman Steve Kulm said Friday. “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.”
The heightened scrutiny from regulators after the launchpad spectacle has played a role in holding up SpaceX’s latest “SN9” Starship test attempt, which the company said would happen on Thursday. The shiny steel alloy, 16-story-tall rocket was loaded with fuel and ready to fly. But at the time, FAA officials were still going through their license review process for the test because of several changes SpaceX made in its license application, a source said. Musk, frustrated with the process, took to Twitter.
“Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” he tweeted on Thursday. “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.”
The license violation (and subsequent license review process) has escalated tensions between SpaceX and the world’s biggest transportation agency. For years, Musk and others in the space industry have bemoaned the age-old US regulatory framework for launch licensing as innovation and competition in space skyrockets. In response, the US Department of Transportation — which delegates its launch oversight duties to the FAA — unveiled new streamlined launch licensing regulations last year. They have yet to go into effect.
In the meantime, Musk’s tweet, calling out the FAA to his 44 million followers, was the latest embodiment of the billionaire’s disgruntled attitude toward regulators that deal with his businesses’ rapid rate of development.
SpaceX, founded by Musk in 2002, has sued the Air Force twice, once successfully in 2014 for the right to compete for Pentagon launches, and another unsuccessfully in 2018 for losing out on competitive development funds for Starship and the company’s other rockets. In 2018, when he was fined $20 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly misleading Tesla investors via Twitter, Musk told 60 Minutes, “I do not respect the SEC. I do not respect them.”
A few hours before the SN8 Starship test in December, while Musk was in Boca Chica securing approval for the FAA license that SpaceX ultimately violated, he was asked in a virtual interview with The Wall Street Journal what role government should play in regulating innovation. Musk replied: “A lot of the time, the best thing the government can do is just get out of the way.”