FAA Investigating Latest SpaceX Starship Test


The FAA has announced it will investigate last week’s spectacular crash landing of SpaceX’s SN9 Starship prototype in Texas. The silo-like rocket performed flawlessly through launch to 50,000 feet, where it hovered briefly before doing its “belly flop” maneuver to descend. One of the engines needed to brake the rocket in its final descent didn’t ignite and the vehicle slammed into the ground and exploded. Musk later said all three engines should have been lit and one shut down to ensure there were two functioning rockets for the landing. It was the latest in a series of pyrotechnic ends to Starship tests and it was delayed by the FAA because of a license infraction on the previous test flight, which ended similarly. It also seemed to escalate a skirmish between SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and the regulator.

After the FAA delayed the SN9 test, Musk ripped the agency on Twitter. After last Tuesday’s light show, he announced he was taking a break from Twitter. The FAA had something to say, however. “The FAA will oversee the investigation of (Tuesday’s) landing mishap involving the SpaceX Starship SN9 prototype in Boca Chica, Texas,” an agency spokesperson told CNN. “Although this was an uncrewed test flight, the investigation will identify the root cause of today’s mishap and possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops.”

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. So, which regulation in the “Rockets that fall sideways and crash stop after rotating vertical” manual did they violate?

  2. It is a given that, if it is mechanical and flies in the air, the FAA attempts to ensure safety of any on board and also on the dirt below. That being said, however, I can’t help but think this is a case of “I’ll show you for making public comments.” This was different circumstances, but a very similar ending to the last one, yet no investigation on that one. Or, are they now using the “two failures before we look” principal as with the MAX? Supportive investigation would be awesome, but …….

  3. I would hate to say “II told you so.” except that I love doing it so much, but it was exactly what I thought.

    A company I used to work for developed a computer program for “Distant Overpressure Focusing.” Under some weather conditions the shock wave from an explosion can affect areas much further away than normally would be the case. SpaceX clearly was required to use that program, which combines the predicted blast effects with population and structural data to produce a Predicted Casualty number, the national standard is 30 in a million; above that you cannot fly.

    It seems that SpaceX ran the calculations for the SN8 launch, found it exceeded the 30 in a million number, and launched anyway. This is the equivalent of a pilot deciding that the 500 ft altitude requirement does not apply over his girlfriend’s house or an airline deciding that since their airplanes have multiple engines, all of the powerplants do not have to pass the pre-takeoff run-up tests.

    When there is a mishap the first question is: “Why did this happen?” The second question is “How did they let it happen?” and depending on the answer to those questions, a third question may arise, “What else are they doing that they are screwing up the same way?” The FAA is now asking the third question.

    Fact is, space launch has less Federal regulation applied that ANY OTHER AVIATION RELATED INDUSTRY. Make a list of all the things you have to comply with to operate an airliner and you find that that the space launch industry basically has NONE of that.

    • I’m not saying that no regulations are necessary, but if the space launch industry had a thick a regulatory rulebook as aviation, we never would have gotten to the moon, let alone into low earth orbit. Yes, with private companies moving into commercial space tourism, there obviously will need to be some regulations to ensure a minimum level of safety, but we aren’t yet at the point where it can even come close to the safety record of commercial flight. Even the Soyuz (which I believe has the most human launches of any space vehicle yet built) would need to have the words “Experimental” written on it.

      If you think about it, commercial flight only became truly safe around the 80s, or about 70 years after the first powered flight. If you consider the 1950s as the start of human spaceflight, we’re only just now 70 years hence, so we’re only just beginning to figure out how to put some actual safety into human spaceflight.

      If you ask me, the FAA having this much scrutiny on SpaceX now is only because they’re trying to show everyone else that in the wake of the MAX fiasco that they can still regulate. But I have more faith in SpaceX figuring it out than the FAA. I never thought SpaceX would be able to successfully get their return-to-earth reusable launch rockets to work, and yet they did – after several RUD landings. And they did that without FAA “helpful” oversight.

  4. Well, it might be just as concerning if the FAA were to react in the opposite manner, and after an explosive landing simply say “Yeah, that’s cool” 😉

  5. Well, surely they violated general order one prohibiting anything not seen before and possibly the subchapter prohibiting scaring people. Spacex posted a truly frightening video that looks like a big thing is falling right on the viewer. Now, even my cat knows that things coming at them on a screen are not real (although, in fairness, my previous cat did not).

  6. And then there’s this regulation on “Privately owned rockets expected to crash on privately owned land” and the special case “When land is owned by rocket operator”.

  7. How long was SN9 in flight? A little over 6 minutes? I can almost read it now. The result of this investigation will be the issuance of an Emergency Airworthiness Directive by the FAA requiring the immediate inspection of every Raptor engine prior to exceeding 6 minutes in service.

  8. I am not sure where Robert E has gotten his information from to positively determine that SpaceX violated the national standard of 30 in a million rule posing some shockwave damage to flora and fauna due to particular weather parameters. Seems to me, if SpaceX had violated that rule/regulation ( if that is indeed a FAR regulation vs a recommendation), the FAA would be the first to announce to the world, SpaceX’s intentional non-compliance. The FAA would not pass up a golden opportunity to use SpaceX as their poster boy for what not to do and how the FAA will handle those who dare to intentionally challenge the express, written FAR status quo. I would be interested to see a link to that 30 to one million FAR requirement or no go.

    Elon is not “behaving” or “reacting” in proper, expected FAA response to the FAA’s delaying a launch followed with an investigation in SpaceX protocol. The FAA will have a hard time doing a ramp check on a spacecraft they know nothing about. SpaceX developments are certainly proprietary. SpaceX already knows what failed. Probably already knows the solution. And I would expect, already applied the fix. The FAA has not set the bureaucratically glacial, investigative wheels in motion yet other than saying they will launch an investigation and Elon already has SN10 on the launch pad, fixed and ready to go with SN11-14 in the barn as backups. Musk is so far ahead of the FAA, the FAA is worried they will look pretty antiquated losing control of not only SpaceX but others like Virgin Galactic. Gotta jerk the regulatory leash, even if they don’t know exactly what it is, to let these new Twitter users who is the “master”.

    This would be an ideal time for the FAA to work with SpaceX in a more cooperative way, using events like the RUD of SN9 as a working partnership elevating them from the MAX debacle rather than the usual I am the “master” investigative threats. However, the FAA has not been at the top of their PR game, if ever they had a PR game.

    • Where did I get the information on the violation of the overpressure requirements?

      The FAA released that information to the news media and they reported it! While no doubt not even 30 in a million of newsmen understand the concept it is obtuse enough in nature that we can be assured they did not make it up.

  9. This may be a chance for the FAA to help Space X figure out what they are doing wrong and prevent more explosions that could kill passengers or crew or people on the ground in the future.

    In general I’m against federal intervention in general and the FAA in particular but Space X obviously needs help.

    • No more help than the US government (NASA) needed in figuring out how to get the first Mercury space capsule to launch without exploding. And if they did need help, I doubt the FAA would be the right people to help them.

    • So … how’d the test of those SLS engines—old and well-sorted technology, with some updates—go for NASA? After how many years?
      Yeah, SpaceX needs help … to get people the heck out of the way. You aren’t at all against intervention, it seems.

    • The FAA doesn’t “help”. You submit what the FAA wants and if it is not sufficient (with the FAA it usually isn’t) they kick it back telling you it does not meet FAA requirements. Then it is up to you to guess what the FAA wants and resubmit. This back and forth can happen several times. Why else does it take over 18 months to get a certificate approved! As I said before the FAA needs to be taken out of the space/rocket business other than airspace allocation for launches before the FAA drowns the private rocket launch business in bureaucratic red tape!

    • The FAA utterly lacks the expertise to help SpaceX figure out why the Starships are crashing.

      Fortunately, as Elon Musk has put it, “It pays to be a little bit paranoid in this business.” SpaceX has adopted a degree of paranoia in its company policies, after starting out by doing what all such new companies do and adopting an attitude that the established companies in the business were too cautious. Then comes a few high speed 2X4’s applied to the skull and they begin to figure it out.

  10. Yes, they should immediately send out their crack team of experts on steel rockets that fall sideways and crash stop after rotating vertical.

  11. They will blame it on the pilot, as they always do. Seriously, what does the FAA know about rockets?

  12. What does the FAA know about spacecraft, particularly rockets? I saw no FAA investigation into the Apollo fire, Columbia re-entry tragedy, or the Challenger explosion due to the leaky O rings. Nor have a heard of any other FAA investigations during all of the experimental flights which cost the lives of many civilian and military test pilots through out the 50-60-70’s. I am sure the FAA was officially in charge of the any airspace but daily managed by NASA. Under what FAA department does the modern technology of the day have trained FAA personnel in place during any evolution of aircraft and space technology?

    What FAA department had the technological savvy to understand all of the aspects of MCAS? We all know they don’t have that level of expertise having to depend on the manufacturer to be honest, forthright, and consistently dependable in sharing new technology with its virtues and vices. The regs are there to enforce that relationship should either party stray from honest transparency. That make perfect sense when both parties possess the same honest character. It makes sense when one or both decides to do otherwise. Boeing and the FAA violated long standing certification regulations that have been in place for a very long time.

    However, technology today is moving faster than any regs can keep up with just as it did in the 30’s when private enterprise, even under the economic pressure of the Great Depression, accelerated by the vaunted military with associated government agencies that was in oversight of their activities. The technological advances far outpaced the military/government. No need to be adversarial then nor now.

    The last thing we need is the FAA oversight of space technology. They have their hands full with ADS-B. Let Elon do what he does best and engage SpaceX knowledge/talent in formulating the ever evolving new regulations based on knowledge rather than knee jerk fear. These regs should be developed with cooperation of NASA rather than the FAA if one is inclined to think we need more government intervention.

  13. If the FAA continues to intervene, look for Musk to go back to offshore barges or even to a foreign country for his launches (like the European spaceport in Guiana, South America). OR, perhaps the FAA would be happier if we went back to begging rides on RUSSINA rockets (they could never be blamed for THOSE failures!) The very HUBRIS of the FAA–trying to “regulate from the rear”–regulating something they know nothing about.

    Go back and look at all of the rocket failures that GOVERNMENT rockets had in the lead-up to the space program–where was the FAA in “helping” the program THEN? Go back to all of the X-planes that flew at Edwards–THEY had no “FAA supervision.” I can see it all now–“Captain Yeager, you are charged with a still-unwritten Federal Air Regulation for operating the X-1 with known defects–operating the aircraft with a known medical deficiency (broken ribs), and an unauthorized addition to the flight controls (broomstick). Furthermore, the B-29 crew created a hazard to people on the ground by releasing this unairworthy aircraft in flight.” The difference? Unlike PRIVATE aircraft and rocket development, GOVERNMENT IS EXEMPT FROM OTHER GOVERNMENT OVERSIGHT.

    The British used to have a saying “The CAA considers it a failure every time an aeroplane takes to the skies–there is always the POSSIBILITY of a failure.” The FAA seems to have adopted that failed policy.

  14. SpaceX wouldn’t be allowed to move out of the country. Rocket technology is export controlled under ITAR and a bunch of other federal laws. They would have to have State department permission which I seriously doubt they would get. As far as the offshore barges are concerned I don’t think that would get them out from under the FAA since they would still be a US company. Unfortunately if a government agency wants to control your company you don’t have a lot of options unless you have a lot of support in congress. There is a reason that companies like Boeing and Lockheed spend huge amounts of money on campaign contributions. If they were having a problem like this they would simply make a few phone calls and the FAA would get told to back off from someone very high up. There are still limits to this though as Boeing recently found out.

  15. Musk has enough money to launch from the European Spaceport in Guiana–or to establish a space company in any other “flag of convenience” country–and I wouldn’t blame him. Perhaps Musk’s fervent desire to go to Mars is to escape the FAA

    As others have pointed out, the FAA is hardly a space expert–but that doesn’t stop them from trying to regulate it. This isn’t limited to aviation–consider government failure in almost ANYTHING they try to regulate–border crossings? Wage and price controls? Energy policy? The economy? Inflation? Covid? Commodity prices/farm program? Look at aviation itself–how many successful government-designed and manufactured U.S. airplanes can you name? (off the top of my head, I can only think of the N3N–pre WW II).

    This isn’t a new phenomenon–does anybody really think that the X-planes could or should have been regulated by the FAA? Let’s face it–throughout aviation history, MOST new aircraft and advances would have been regulated out of the skies by the FAA. If the FAA had existed then, would they have approved the Spirit of St. Louis? (“You can’t fly an airplane with no windshield! You don’t have adequate navigation for an Atlantic crossing! You might lose cloud clearance minimums at night over the Atlantic! “You exceeded your duty time! You landed at a major airport at night, without any lights! You didn’t have an FAA sign off on that airplane, or the required sign-off flight time!

    I have a 60+ year collection of most major aviation magazines. The common thread? Ridicule of the CAA/FAA. They have some good ideas–but nearly always “jump the shark” by taking those ideas far overboard.