There was no immediate word on why the spacecraft landed hard on Tuesday.
The launch came after a tussle with the Federal Aviation Administration spilled into the open. Before the December test flight, SpaceX had sought a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration that would have allowed it “to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday.
But after that waiver was denied, SpaceX proceeded with the flight, violating its launch license in what aerospace and industry officials said was a potentially reckless move that could have posed serious risk to the public’s safety.
As a result of the violation, the FAA directed Elon Musk’s company to investigate the incident and suspend operations that could affect public safety at its launch site in South Texas.
Ultimately, the investigation ended, the FAA approved the company’s remedies and granted it approval to attempt Tuesday’s test.
In its statement, the FAA did not say what precisely the violations were, or whether it had fined the company, and a spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on those issues. SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
The statement came a few days after Musk publicly chastised the FAA for getting in the company’s way as it develops and tests the Starship prototype, the spacecraft SpaceX hopes to fly to the moon and Mars.
Frustrated by the delay in getting a modification approved that would allow it to launch its next prototype, known as Serial Number 9 or SN9, Musk blasted the FAA on Twitter, saying: “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.”
In response, the FAA said in a statement last week that it “will not compromise its responsibility to protect public safety. We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements.”
The standoff with the FAA is yet another example of Musk pushing back against government regulation. He sued the Air Force over the right to compete for national security launch contracts — and secured a settlement that allowed SpaceX to do so. And after he was fined $20 million for allegedly misleading investors about his Tesla car company, he told “60 Minutes,” “I do not respect [the Securities and Exchange Commission]. I do not respect them.”
And Tesla, his electric car company, sued Alameda County in California last spring for the right to reopen after it was shut down because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Now, he is taking aim at the FAA, the federal agency that licenses launches but also is, as part of its mandate, supposed to support industry.
Musk’s tweets were “not helpful,” said a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
If the FAA approved a launch that ended with people getting hurt “then we’re in a situation where we’re second-guessed — did you do everything you could? And were you influenced by Elon and his fan club?” the person said.
After working throughout the weekend on SpaceX’s license for its next flight, the FAA said on Tuesday it determined that SpaceX “complies with all safety and related federal regulations and is authorized to conduct Starship SN9 flight operations in accordance with its launch license.”
Tuesday’s flight went smoothly through liftoff, as the rocket burned its engines to reach the 6.2-mile apogee. The descent looked controlled as John Insprucker, SpaceX’s principal integration engineer, said on the company’s broadcast, “everything continuing to go well in this portion of the flight.”
After the vehicle crashed, he said that “we had another great flight to the 10-kilometer apogee” and that the subsonic reentry looked very good and stable.” He said “we need to work on that landing a little bit.” He added, “all told, another great [flight].”
SpaceX has a series of test vehicles that it is putting through the test campaign — and the next rocket, known as Serial Number 10, or SN10, has already been transported to its launchpad. It’s not clear when it may fly, but Musk has moved aggressively on the development project, hoping the vehicle will reach orbit sometime this year.
Still, if SpaceX committed a serious violation of its launch license for the previous flight, the FAA should not hesitate to sanction the company, said Jared Stout, who served as the acting chief of staff at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and was the deputy executive secretary of the National Space Council in the Trump administration.
“The consequences of not following the parameters of an FAA launch license can literally kill people,” said Stout, who as a lobbyist has also worked for one of SpaceX’s main competitors. “If the FAA is not going to enforce its regulations, why do we have the [Office of Commercial Space Transportation]? What’s the point of the FAA setting parameters for these flights if launch companies don’t follow them? And SpaceX seems to be the only company having this problem.”
The SN8 version of Starship flew several miles high from the launch facility SpaceX has built in Boca Chica, Tex., outside of Brownsville on the Gulf of Mexico. After its engines shut down, the stainless-steel spacecraft performed a “belly flop” maneuver, falling horizontally through the atmosphere. Then it righted itself and reignited its engines for landing. But instead of touching down softly, it crashed, igniting a fireball that sprayed pieces of rocket shrapnel across the landing site
No one was injured, and Musk called the flight “an awesome test.”
The crash itself did not constitute a violation of the license, and it did not cause a delay in issuing the approval for the SN9 flight, according to the person with knowledge of the situation.
“We expect these to fail and as long as they fail safely, as designed, that’s not an issue,” the person said.
It’s not clear what the violation was, but some industry officials said it could be related to the altitude of the flight, or ensuring people and boats were safely out of a predetermined keep-out-zone.
If SpaceX exceeded the altitude restrictions, for example, that could not only pose a hazard to aircraft in the area but people on the ground, Stout said.
“Even if the FAA has cleared all the airspace, there’s still the potential that if they go above the altitude restriction and were to blow up, the detritus that comes down could be outside the parameters of the license,” he said.
Earlier Monday morning, Musk tweeted that he was “Off Twitter for a while.” It was not clear if that was related to his tussle with the FAA.