U.S. Aviation Administration to Oversee Investigation of Crashed SpaceX Starship Prototype

U.S. Aviation Administration to Oversee Investigation of Crashed SpaceX Starship Prototype
The SN9 Starship prototype exploding during a failed landing on February 2, 2021. (Image: SpaceX)

The explosive crash of a SpaceX prototype Starship rocket this week has prompted the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to oversee an investigation into the incident. The news follows recent reports that SpaceX violated federal safety regulations late last year.

An FAA spokesperson told CNN through a statement that the investigation will “identify the root cause” of the “mishap” and explore “possible opportunities to further enhance safety as the program develops.”

Mishap is certainly a word to describe what happened this past Tuesday (February 2, 2021) at SpaceX’s test facility in Boca Chica, Texas.

The high-altitude test of SN9 appeared to be going well, with the Starship prototype performing a suborbital flight to approximately 6 miles (10 km), followed by an aerodynamic free fall back toward the ground. But things went sour during the landing flip manoeuvre, as “one of the [three] Raptor engines did not relight and caused SN9 to land at high speed and experience a RUD,” according to SpaceX.

By RUD, SpaceX means “rapid unscheduled disassembly.” Good joke (and a term used for decades), but the FAA is not laughing, especially given that this is now the second explosive crash of a Starship prototype, the first one happening on December 11, 2020.

“The FAA’s top priority in regulating commercial space transportation is ensuring that operations are safe, even if there is an anomaly,” declared the FAA statement. Accordingly, the aerospace regulator, which also oversees U.S. airspace, will “oversee the investigation of [Tuesday’s] landing mishap” involving the SpaceX prototype.

Fans of Musk will grumble, but this is exactly the sort of thing that the FAA is supposed to do. As its guidelines make clear, the FAA can get involved on account of a launch or reentry accident or incident, a launch site accident, or in the event of a “failure to complete a launch or reentry as planned.” The FAA can also get involved when damage to the “payload, a launch or reentry vehicle, a launch or reentry support facility…located on the launch or reentry site” exceeds $US25,000 ($32,900).

Lots of boxes checked there, so the FAA is certainly within its bounds in this case.

And if I may dare say, the aerospace regulator might be leaning on SpaceX right now given recent events. As the Verge reports, the high-altitude test done back in December was unauthorised. Prior to the SN8 test, SpaceX “sought a waiver to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations,” according to Reuters, which the FAA subsequently denied. SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, went ahead with the launch anyway.

SpaceX wanted to launch SN9 last week but couldn’t owing to the lack of FAA approval. By Tuesday, however, the FAA had decided to allow the launch, saying SpaceX had made the requisite “corrective actions,” the details of which remain unknown, per Reuters.

That said, an FAA statement released prior to Tuesday’s SN9 launch provides some clues as to what happened to change the agency’s mind.

“The FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident, including a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline,” the FAA spokesperson said. “All testing that could affect public safety at the Boca Chica launch site was suspended until the investigation was completed and the FAA approved the company’s corrective actions.”

The FAA said there will be “no further enforcement action on [the] SN8 matter,” and that the requested measures were incorporated into the SN9 launch.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

At its website, the company says these flight tests “are all about improving our understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration, interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond.”

That these tests involve the semi-controlled plummet of a hulking prototype rocket partially filled with fuel, and now a pair of explosions that would make Michael Bay blush, doesn’t seem to be much of a concern to SpaceX. Sure, the immediate area around the Boca Chica test site is unoccupied, but residential and commercial areas are located a few miles to the north at Port Isabel and South Padre Island. So of course the FAA is concerned.

In a January 28 tweet, Musk said the “FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.” The SpaceX CEO is not entirely out of line with his comments. The Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, developed new rules last year to modernise the way the FAA “regulates and licence commercial space operations and allows the burgeoning aerospace industry to continue to innovate and grow, while maintaining public safety,” according to a statement. But as the Verge reports, these regulations have yet to be put into practice.

In his tweet, Musk said that, under the current rules, “humanity will never get to Mars.” Which, give me a break. History will hardly record an American aerospace regulator as the fundamental obstacle to the Red Planet, but the world’s richest man is clearly frustrated by not being able to do whatever he wants, whenever he wants. Good.