US Congress Probes ‘Risky’ SpaceX Launch

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An illustration of a Big Falcon Rocket launch. Image credit: SpaceX

US Congress says it is investigating regulators’ handling of SpaceX flight that violated safety rules and other launches that ‘raise serious questions’

The US Congress is investigating regulators’ handling of a commercial SpaceX launch that violated the company’s licence and public safety requirements.

Lawmakers said they were “disappointed” in the Federal Aviation Administration‘s (FAA) handling of the December launch.

The news comes as SpaceX plans to test launch its latest Starship prototype, the SN11.

In question is SpaceX’s launch of its SN8 Starship prototype in December.

SpaceX's Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX

Public risk

SpaceX proceeded with the launch in spite of the FAA determining that the flight profile exceeded the maximum allowed risk to the public for “far field blast overpressure”, in other words the risk of an explosion that could affect individuals far distant from the site.

The SN8 did explode upon landing, but there were no reports of damage outside the SpaceX facility in Boca Chica Village in South Texas.

The FAA directed SpaceX to investigate the incident, including a “a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline”.

It later cleared the company for the SN9 and SN10 launches on 2 February and 3 March, both of which exploded upon or shortly after landing.

In a 25 March letter to the FAA, House of Representatives Transportation Committee chairman Peter DeFazio and representative Rick Larsen said the committee’s staff had been examining for two months “SpaceX launch activities that, taken together, raise serious questions”.

They questioned the FAA’s handling of the December licence breach in a “high-risk” industry.

Artist’s rendering of a SpaceX Starship rocket on the Moon. Image credit: SpaceX
Artist’s rendering of a SpaceX Starship rocket on the Moon. Image credit: SpaceX

‘Disappointed’

“Given the high-risk nature of the industry, we are disappointed that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action,” they wrote.

They urged the FAA to implement a “strict policy” to deal with licence violations including civil penalties.

“At no point should a commercial space launch jeopardise public safety,” wrote DeFazio and Larsen.

The FAA said only that it had received the letter and would respond directly to the committee.

The FAA said on Monday it had revised SpaceX’s licence effective 12 March to require an FAA inspector’s presence at every SpaceX launch.

The company delayed a planned Monday launch of its SN11 prototype, saying an inspector had not been able to arrive in time.

The test flights involve launching a vehicle to a height of 10 km before landing on a nearby pad.

The SpaceX Starship is proposed as a fully reusable, two-stage system designed to be able to reach Mars and other planets.

SpaceX's Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX
SpaceX’s Starship prototype. Image credit: SpaceX

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