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Congress expresses its displeasure with the FAA’s treatment of the Starship launch authorization infringement

As SpaceX plans to fly another Starship concept, the Federal Aviation Administration is under criticism from Congress over how it treated SpaceX’s infringement of its launch authorization on a prior test flight. SpaceX had intended to fire the SN11 Starship from its Boca Chica, Texas, testing facility on March 29. The flight would be identical to past Starship designs, with the spacecraft ascending to a height of 10 km before settling on a surrounding pad.

The launch effort on March 29 was cancelled after an FAA investigator was unable to arrive within a five-hour timeframe to monitor the trip. Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, tweeted, “FAA investigator unable to meet Starbase in preparation for launch today,” referring to the planned new username for the Boca Chica platform. “The meeting has been rescheduled for no sooner than tomorrow.” For the SN11 launch, FAA participation on board at the testing facility is a new prerequisite. The most recent edition of SpaceX’s FAA launch authorization for the Starship suborbital flight test project, which was released on March 12, specifies that such checks will only take place “while an FAA Safety Investigator is available at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch as well as the landing point.”

In December, an inquiry into SpaceX’s breach of the launch permit throughout the SN8 flight test prompted the move. Despite the FAA finding that the flight profile approached the highest allowable danger to the unassociated public for “far-field burst overpressure” in the case of an accident, SpaceX went ahead with the flight. Outside of the SpaceX testing facility, the SN8 spacecraft exploded upon impact, but there were no indications of injury. The FAA has instructed SpaceX to review the crash, which has forced the next Starship project, SN9, to be postponed. The FAA stated in a statement on February 2 that the investigation involved “a thorough analysis of the firm’s safety culture, organizational decision-making, and procedure discipline.”

The FAA cleared SpaceX to continue with deployments, with SN9 as well as SN10 launching and landing on February 2 as well as March 3, respectively, and both bursting upon or immediately after landing. Outside of the SpaceX testing facility, neither did any harm. Two main Congress members have criticized the FAA’s reply to SpaceX’s launch license infringement, especially the absence of any sanctions outside the inquiry. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), as well as Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), wrote to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson on March 25 to “register our reservations” regarding the incident. Larsen is the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee’s chairperson, while DeFazio is the chairperson of the House Transportation Committee’s transportation subcommittee.

After summing up the incident and inquiry, they said, “Given the high-risk existence of the business, we are surprised that the FAA failed to undertake an impartial analysis of the case and, to the extent of our understanding, has not taken some regulatory action.”

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