SpaceX ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration ahead of its December Starship prototype launch, which ended in a giant explosion.
After a six-and-a-half minute test flight on December 9, 2020, the SpaceX Starship SN8 prototype crashed and exploded into a ball of flames. However, it has now been revealed that SpaceX received multiple warnings before the prototype took off.
The warnings, issued minutes before liftoff, alerted SpaceX that the flight would be in violation of the company’s launch license, according to confidential documents seen by The Verge.
However, the warning was reportedly ignored because SpaceX staff “assumed that the inspector did not have the latest information,” according to the confidential documents.
SpaceX complained that the Federal Aviation Administration’s software was a “source of frustration” for Musk’s space company, and that the data it used to issue these warnings was “overly conservative.” This led to the company ignoring warnings.
Earlier this year, Musk took to Twitter to again air his frustrations with the FAA, asserting that the space division has a “fundamentally broken regulatory system.”
Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.
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.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 28, 2021
Essentially, the FAA asserts that SpaceX was prioritising speed over safety.
“Although the report states that all SpaceX parties believed that such risk was sufficiently low to comply with regulatory criteria, SpaceX used analytical methods that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window,” the FAA’s Space Division Chief Wayne Monteith said in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.
According to the documents, the warnings flagged that the extreme weather conditions could exacerbate the damage caused by a possible explosion, which could potentially put nearby homes and businesses in danger. Thankfully, the SN8 – which ended up being engulfed in a massive fire – didn’t damage any nearby properties.
Despite the fact that nobody was hurt in the ordeal, the FAA still complained SpaceX ignored proper safety protocols.
“These actions show a concerning lack of operational control and process discipline that is inconsistent with a strong safety culture,” Monteith wrote in a letter to Shotwell.
SpaceX has reportedly since agreed to reevaluate its safety practices and adhere to FAA requests to cancel or pause future launches. Additionally, Monteith has ordered an FAA inspector to be physically present at all future Starship prototype launches to avoid another breach.
Considering SpaceX just secured a $Us2.9 billion NASA contract to send humans in 2024, it appears that the company has faced very few consequences for blatantly breaching its launch license.
Gizmodo Australia has reached out to SpaceX for comment.