MinutesMinutes before liftoff, Elon Musk’s SpaceX ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration that launching its first high-altitude Starship prototype last December would violate the company’s launch license, confidential documents and letters obtained by The Verge show. And while SpaceX was under investigation, it told the FAA that the agency’s software was a “source of frustration” that has been “shown to be inaccurate at times or overly conservative,” according to the documents.
SpaceX’s violation of its launch license was “inconsistent with a strong safety culture,” the FAA’s space division chief Wayne Monteith said in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. “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,” Monteith went on.
Launch violations are rare in the industry, even as private contractors have taken over work that once was the US government’s alone. SpaceX occupies a particularly dominant position, as it is now NASA’s only ride to the International Space Station and the Moon. The documents exclusively obtained by The Verge show how SpaceX prioritized speed over safety when launching on its own private rocket playground. Ultimately, the FAA didn’t sanction SpaceX, and less than two months later, SpaceX resumed flights in Boca Chica, Texas.
For Musk, SpaceX’s CEO who was on site for SN8’s launch day, the violation is one of the latest tussles with regulators overseeing his companies. After settling with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2018 over an attempt to take Tesla private, Musk was told his tweets about the company needed a lawyer’s sign-off. Shortly after, he went on 60 Minutes to say no one was approving his tweets; the SEC brought him back to court, though Musk’s tweets have continued to raise eyebrows with no apparent consequences. In 2020, Musk’s Fremont Tesla factory violated local safety orders, defying the local government’s stay-at-home order to work through the pandemic. Musk taunted local officials, inviting them to come arrest him.
SpaceX emerged from the December launch violation relatively unscathed. The company has since won a $2.9 billion contract to put NASA astronauts on a Starship flight to the Moon in 2024 — the first and only such contract in a half-century.
Neither SpaceX nor Musk has publicly commented on the SN8 violation. SpaceX didn’t respond to a request for comment. The FAA confirmed the violation after a report by The Verge in January. But a confidential five-page report by SpaceX and letters between Shotwell and Monteith reveal what SpaceX employees knew before liftoff and detail how the company responded to its violation in the aftermath…Read more>>