Musk, FAA Spar Over Next Mars Rocket Test Launch


SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has gone to war with the FAA after the agency denied the company permission to launch its SN9 prototype deep space rocket as scheduled on Jan. 28. The agency issued a last-minute notice about five hours before the scheduled launch and said it was rescheduled until the following day. The delay launched a Twitter tirade from Musk, who clearly laid the blame on the agency. “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” Musk tweeted. “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 rocket still hasn’t launched and may go Feb. 1.

The dispute seems to stem from the launch and subsequent spectacular explosion of the previous prototype, which reached its targeted altitude, properly transitioned to a flat attitude for descent but didn’t stick the landing. The agency reportedly determined that launch violated SpaceX’s launch license and wants to ensure there are no further violations. “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,” FAA spokesman Steve Kulm said in a statement to the Verge. “We will approve the modification [to the launch license] only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements.” 

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. It’s obvious the FAA knows what they are doing, just look at the great job they did assessing the flight safety of the 767.

      • It wasn’t the fault of the FAA. Boeing overstepped its own authority under ODA and let MCAS overstep its authority, even if the data it was fed came from a faulty “single point of failure” AoA sensor.

  2. Really? The agency issued a “last-minute” notice about “five hours before” the scheduled launch and said it was rescheduled until the following day. This is a huge program, 5-hours before a launch seems a bit tight? I know it’s due to Covid-19!

  3. Musk new this was coming otherwise he wouldn’t of bought 2 floating oilrigs to convert into launch platforms. Logistically the floating platforms will be a pain but in the long run it will be much safer for the public, although it could be less safe for the engineers and technicians working on the floating platform. But the FAA waiting till 5 hours before the launch was a nasty move, and with some of the highest public interest since the space race in the 60’s, it puts the FAA in a bad spot light.

  4. The key here will be how the FAA determined that the SN8 flight violated the launch license. What exactly was done wrong? Was it outside the stated flight envelope? Or did they feel that a RUD upon landing was a violation? If these were indeed the case then why did it take until five hours prior to the next flight to make this determination? That should have been obvious immediately.

    • The FAA was aware, in fact Musk stated publicly, that the SN8 mission could end in tears. And flames, and shard.

    • That was my question too. What is it about a bad landing that endangered the public any more than any other part of the flight? It wasn’t like it crashed and blew up in someone’s back yard. It came down exactly where it was supposed to, but landed too hard. Thanks to their telemetry, SpaceX knew within a few minutes what had caused the failure, so why did the FAA wait until hours before the next launch to say they needed more information about the fix? This sounds like the FAA jerking SpaceX around a little to show who is really the boss.

  5. This is the second or third article I have read on this and no one has said what the violation was. Why? Will AvWeb do a little research and report exactly what SpaceX allegedly did wrong!

    • In this case, “blowing up” as an outcome was both expected and accepted.

      On the other hand, had this happened after trans-continental passenger service was started, then “blowing up” would, no doubt, be branded as a “violation”.

  6. I’m conflicted.

    In general I find the FAA to be obtuse and intrusive and typical Big Government in action.

    On the other hand I loathe the Muskrat and anything that harms him I consider to be essentially good.

      • He is an arrogant heathen megalomaniac. His manipulation of the market and the government have contributed to the destruction of the V8 powered cars that I love, and have caused harm to manufactures I support such as Mercedes Benz.

        In general I make it a point to be against eco-mentalists and those who suck on the government teat and The Muskrat exemplifies these issues.

    • Like the man or hate the man, there’s no reason why SpaceX and its employees should have to suffer. SpaceX has accomplished what NASA (with its current funding) nor ULA could have done (because what incentive did they have for reducing costs since they were the only game in town).

  7. Musk is either trying to be polite, or he doesn’t really know much about the FAA. None of its divisions are “fine”.

  8. The FAA is not used to dealing with a company whose revolutionary developments happen successfully with rapidity. They are used to glacial bureaucratic companies or organizations that dos not threaten the standard aviation/aerospace/space status quo taking decades at exorbitant development prices many times funded by taxpayers to accomplish stated goals. This action was a shot over the proverbial bow at Elon reminding him glacial bureaucracy is still in control. Most likely, no one will really know what the violation was. I believe it was intentionally vague in the FAA attempts to keep the bureaucratic leash on Musk to “jerk” him so he would know who is still “master”.

  9. I have had considerable experience in space launch and was part of a team that developed the FAA/USAF safety standards. I do not know exactly what occurred here, but you need to realize that launches from Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg AFB involve the use of government operated ranges that mandate and express permission to launch. The SpaceX launch facility at Boca Chica is a privately operated range. It is not hard to imagine that data was uncovered related to the previous launch that concerned the FAA. For example, suppose the winds data showed that debris from a launch failure could have endangered populated areas. At the Cape or VAFB the USAF would have assessed the situation and not allowed the launch to proceed – we have done that. At Boca Chica the FAA is relying on SpaceX to do that.

    Airliners are not required to operate from airports with control towers, but suppose the FAA found that an airliner had violated safe practices by not announcing its approach on the CTAF or proceeded to land even though there was already an aircraft on the runway. Don’t you think that the FAA might shut down the airline operations at that airport – if not everywhere – until they were satisfied that operations would be safe?

    Back in the early 90’s there was a Pegasus launch that was being supported out of the Cape and Wallops FF. The aircraft was just about to launch the Pegasus when data was lost at WFF. The aircrew made a decision to launch anyway, since aborting the launch after battery activation would have caused an extended delay, and WFF was really not needed anyway. There was an NTSB investigation into why the launch occurred even though the organization supposedly running the operation lost their data link.

    • “Don’t you think that the FAA might shut down the airline operations at that airport – if not everywhere – until they were satisfied that operations would be safe? ”

      Not in my experience.

  10. Someone at FAA suddenly discovered the Internet thing, and read a story about Tesla’s autopilot is my guess.

  11. I have always been a little confused about what empowers the FAA to control such launches in the first place. Other than the ability to issue a TFR around the launch site, what other control do they have for space launch activities? The Air Force clearly has control of what goes into space, so they should be the ones working with SpaceX and decididing when it is appropriate to launch. Starship #8 was not the first rocket SpaceX has blown up at their launch site, so what endangered the public any more on this one than any of the others? This all sounds like a government bureaucracy looking to mark their territory and show who’s boss.