Interplanetary Egos Getting In The Way?


The sheer audacity required to create a business that aims to profit from space flight, including interplanetary travel, guarantees that those who bite are going to have something of an attitude. The three current front runners, SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson, have it in spades and none is a stranger to pushing the limits of regulatory bounds. 

Of the three, Musk has been the most outspoken in criticizing the relevant government agencies of standing in the way of the innovation he and his vast stable of wunderkinds have unleashed.

So, it’s almost sadly predictable that he is the first to have his lavishly expensive wings clipped by an agency that’s been under constant pressure to accommodate technological miracles since it was first formed.

In many ways, the job of the FAA, which morphed from the former Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1958, has been to essentially temper the enthusiasm of entrepreneurs who have relentlessly pushed the limits of aviation technology for material gain since the end of the 19th century. With apologies, it’s had its ups and downs.

Of course those with the latest and greatest will always chafe at “red tape” that slows their rush to market. At the same time there have been truly tragic regulatory lapses that have contributed to thousands of deaths in our pursuit of the notion that humans should fly.

As the smoke clears from the MAX debacle, the tide has shifted toward more careful scrutiny of those who want to go higher, faster and further with the public as their cargo. It was perhaps inevitable that the FAA would react the way it did with SpaceX’s Starship program.

With some exceptions, aviation advancement, under FAA scrutiny, has followed a prescribed path of technological excellence in pursuit of the flawless first test flight. It hasn’t always worked.

SpaceX’s approach has been to sacrifice hardware (often spectacularly) in pursuit of the knowledge required to prevent it from happening again. To its credit, it has made it to the point of hovering a massive rocket at 50,000 feet without killing anyone. It’s pretty remarkable, actually.

On one hand, the oft-stated goal of allowing free enterprise to lead the way in these ridiculously ambitious endeavors is a false promise. The FAA, as it always has, must try to ensure that innocents don’t get killed in the process. It has failed many times and will continue to do so but it must try.

The trick is to assess the torrent of spectacular achievements in an environment fueled not only by brilliant minds but machine learning and artificial intelligence. I don’t envy the FAA folks at all.

At the same time, I understand Musk’s frustration. He knows it’s a matter of time before he sticks a landing with the Starship and a matter of a few months after that when it becomes old hat. I remember watching the first video of SpaceX hovering a rocket around a test site about 10 years ago and picking my jaw up off the floor. Now main booster recoveries are routine for SpaceX.

What’s frustrating for the rest of us is that these two sets of knuckleheads seem to be busy peeing on the furniture when they should be working at getting this done.

The FAA has a reputation of being vindictive when crossed although I’m not sure how accurate that is. If there’s truth to it then Musk has just the kind of, uh, personality, to set that off. Enough already, both of you.

Musk has offered the first olive branch by taking a break from Twitter. Mr. Musk, we all know how smart you are and you could be less of an ass about it. And the FAA could button up its shirt and stop flexing those huge muscles. We all know they’re there.

Seems to me we’re on the cusp of something pretty great here. It would be a shame to bog it down in pointless bluster.

To borrow a worn-out phrase from another topic: We’re all in this together, right?

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. The FAA … making simple $%@# hard since 1958. They usually don’t know how to lead, don’t want to follow and now — won’t get out of the way. And the NEW knucklehead what be in charge … SIGH !!

      • No, John … I didn’t do a good job of defining who I was talking about … the unqualified and no transportation experience appointed head of the DOT, not FAA.

        • You didn’t mind the failed performance of the previous administration’s cabinet let alone the president who presided over four years of dumpster fires but you criticize someone who has yet to establish his track record in the job? Are you incapable of being embarrassed or simply misinformed?

  2. I’ve considered the benefits of going to work with Musk. There is the potential to jump cleanly out of the entrenched slowness of progress that marks every industry that has gentrified in the 76 years since WW2. Which is more than half the reason Tesla and SpaceX are such wildly popular endeavours. They’re mostly playing catch up on stalled potential. But you know you’d want to throttle him pretty regularly also.

  3. I’m still struggling with what the FAA has to do with rocket launches other than to issue a TFR around the launch site and watch for encroaching aircraft. I was under the impression that NASA and the Air Foce were responsible for oversight in this area. In fact, when Musk launches rockets from the Kennedy Space Center, that is exactly what happens. And, he had to thoroughly prove to both agencies that his Falcon rockets were safe and reliable before they allowed any humans to take a ride. So why is the FAA now throwing its weight around? To this point, no Starship has even considered using dummies on board, let alone real humans.

    We all know that the FAA is, to paraphrase a southern expression, ate up with NIH syndrome. Anything they did not think up is immediately suspect and must be studied to death. This was in their DNA from the start, but the MAX debacle has only made it worse. You suggest that the MAX paralysis is effecting many large projects, but it is extending into virtually everything the FAA lays its hands on. An editorial by Paul Bertorelli last spring suggested such, and it is not getting any better.

    I’m not suggesting that Musk is not his own worst enemy – he is. He has a long history of tangling with various government agencies from the SEC to the EPA and beyond. And, he is usually pretty outspoken about it. But I am pretty sure that SpaceX already knows what happened in both failures and has a fix ready to go. After all, they have been through this with NASA and the Air Force. The FAA, by comparison, probably has no clue where to start. They are probably still out searching for the black boxes. In the words, of Rodney King; “Can’t we all just get along?”

    • Launches from KSC and CCSFC are using an Air Force (now Space Force) launch range. South Texas range is operated solely by SpaceX (one of the reasons they are there).
      The FAA grants launch licenses for each and every launch by a US company, irrespective of where in the nation or indeed the world, it occurs. including Rocketlab launches out of New Zealand.

  4. It’s a good thing that the FAA wasn’t around “protecting us”during the early days of the Space Age–remember the spectacular rocket explosions (unmanned, like Space X) THEN? It happened at the same place then as now–the Cape. Nobody was hurt either time–why does the FAA have its panties in a wad? If it were left to the FAA, NO rocket would ever leave the ground (and there would probably be a ban on bottle rockets).

    Do the US ARMED SERVICES get FAA permission to operate within restricted airspace at Edwards AFB? Did the X-series airplanes require FAA approval?

    Keep leaning on private space development, and they will likely go to French Guiana–or offshore barges–or buy his own island. Better yet–at Churchill, Manitoba–on the shores of Hudson’s Bay is an unused spaceport and rocket range–built by the U.S. government and turned over to the town. It was the site for launching a number of early rockets and later atmospheric research rockets. They would be glad to have the business–and Musk could put a border between himself and the FAA.

    • The SpaceX Starship launches are happening in Texas, not Florida.
      And it does not matter where in the world the launches take place, the FAA has oversight if it is a US company. This includes Rocketlab launches out of New Zealand.

      You are right, though, the attitude often seems to be ‘the safest launch is no launch’.

    • Jim … back in 1946, there was a similar food fight between Government agencies over flying the X-1. NACA and the USAAF were having a similar disagreement. The Bureaucrats can’t even get along between themselves, much less private entities. Then — as now — the power struggle continues. And, as Cameron says, the FAA thinks they can somehow wave their magic twanger and make aviation 110% safe … they can’t. But they continue to try while coincidentally stifling all forward movement in aviation.

  5. ‘the safest launch is no launch’
    When the starter went out on my airplane, I declared it to be the safest aircraft on the field.

  6. Ever wonder why a machine with three small wheels, diminutive brakes on only two, no transmission, using an engine designed in the ‘fifties which still uses 1903-style magnetos, Marvel-Schebler carburetors exactly like those on a 1949-model gasoline-powered welder – or worse yet, continuous “fuel injection” that consists of spraying fuel on the back of the intake valve for 100% of the cycle? Wonder why – except for some modern electronics – the instruments are just like those of the ‘forties? Or why people who want to fly are forced to maintain 60-year old machines because they can’t afford new ones? Remind you of anywhere? Cuba, maybe, where they are still repairing ‘forties, ‘fifties, and ‘sixties automobiles? Milton Friedman had it right: government agencies and most of their rules always justify their “necessity” on the basis of “safety,” but in point of fact we do not see the damage and loss of life caused by inventions that were NOT made, ignition and fuel-injection systems, just to name two – and dozens of other things that have been in automobiles for decades – that were NOT implemented because of regulations and liability. No, the FAA’s best move would be to get out of Musk’s way, but they won’t because the FAA’s sole purpose is maintenance of ITSELF.

  7. What the FAA does to Elon could happen to any one of us building or flying an airplane in the Experimental category. SpaceX SN series of launches, some resulting in “RUD”, other successfully, are not carrying humans or any live cargo. He bought some property in Texas to afford opportunity to test to destruction his hardware/software. Each event is an extraordinary data base of information and refinement. Even the FAA had to admit that by the time the fires were out of the RUD event of SN8, SN9 had met all the launch requirements allowing for another successful flight with a not so successful landing.

    No where in that launch approval did the FAA have available a SpaceX technically savvy cadre of “geeks” to verify all of SpaceX changes that were implemented. Its the same bureaucratic machine that approved MCAS. To me, that is another verification that the FAA wanted to shoot the proverbial cannon over Musk’s bow to show who is the real gatekeeper of the skies and space. As many know, the FAA has this legal authorization to decide a US manufacturer of space vehicles when they can launch no matter if they US based or overseas. Maybe if Elon powered his Flash Gordon era look-a-like with an A-65, Slick mags, and a Marvel-Schebler carb, he would get the same scrutiny as a first flight of a Pietenpole Aircamper or Flybaby.

    Either way, I really liked James W’s comments making quite a valid comparison to the ingenuity and hard work demonstrated by the Cubans to their now classic cars, stretching their useful life into the 21st Century. Makes me smile that many of us are cut from that same cloth flying our 60-85 year old airplanes regularly here in the Divided States of America. Elon might have to do likewise.

  8. Are rockets really flight? Sure, there is some laminar flow somewhere, for at least a little while, but lift and thrust have almost entirely been married. Lust, list, thruft, thrist – something like that. Then, in space there is no drag or weight, unless you calculate the coefficient of the FAA. Anyway this “flight” with a pretty good chance of simply blowing up isn’t going to benefit from oversight, mkay. Gimme the TFR and stand back, were going to try science.