Is America Too Bound by Red Tape to Support Space Entrepreneurs?
Does the United States still have what it takes to venture into a new frontier? It’s a question we need to ask as SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, face off with regulators over when and how the government will permit the pioneering commercial space company to test its rockets. While there’s little question that humans will continue exploring beyond the Earth, Americans may be too bound by red tape to lead such efforts.
In December, SpaceX conducted a test of its Starship SN8 prototype that saw the Buck Rogers-looking craft rise and descend as hoped, with the small problem of an explosion on landing. The “rapid unscheduled disassembly” (RUD) wasn’t unexpected, though. Elon Musk had earlier warned that it was a very real possibility for the experimental craft.
Recently, we discovered that the test flight wasn’t supposed to happen at all in the eyes of regulators.
“Prior to the Starship SN8 test launch in December 2020, SpaceX sought a waiver to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations,” a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson told journalists. “After the FAA denied the request, SpaceX proceeded with the flight. As a result of this non-compliance, the FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident. All testing that could affect public safety at the Boca Chica, Texas, launch site was suspended until the investigation was completed and the FAA approved the company’s corrective actions to protect public safety.”
After a regulator-induced delay, the next test flight—of the Starship SN9—launched on February 2, with an outcome similar to that of its predecessor.
“During the landing flip maneuver, one of the Raptor engines did not relight and caused SN9 to land at high speed and experience a RUD,” the company reports.
As the test flights continue, so do disputes between SpaceX and the FAA.
“Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” Musk protested before the SN9 launch. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules
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