WASHINGTON: The Federal Aviation Administration said on Thursday it authorised the next three launches of the SpaceX Starship prototype and confirmed the agency’s head spoke to Chief Executive Elon Musk about safety last month.
The FAA said that prior to the launch of SN15, the FAA would verify that SpaceX implemented corrective actions arising from an investigation that is still open into a December launch.
The agency said that for the subsequent launches of SN16 and SN17, SpaceX “may be subject to additional corrective actions if any new mishap investigations were to occur”.
SpaceX is testing a series of prototypes for the heavy-lift rocket it is developing to carry humans and 100 tons of cargo on future missions to the moon and Mars. A first orbital Starship flight is planned for year’s end.
This month, Nasa awarded SpaceX a US$2.9 billion contract to build a spacecraft to bring astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.
As a condition of the SpaceX license, an FAA safety inspector must be on site in Boca Chica, Texas, for all Starship launches. The FAA safety inspector is expected to arrive on site on Thursday “to support a possible launch this week”, the FAA added.
The FAA said SpaceX’s December launch of Starship SN8 proceeded without the company demonstrating that the public risk from “far field blast overpressure” was within regulatory criteria and violated its license requirements.
Far field blast overpressure may be a hazard to the public if the launch vehicle explodes on impact, potentially creating a shock wave that can damage windows in areas relatively far from the impact site.
The FAA said SpaceX used analytical methods to calculate risks that were not approved by the agency.
The FAA began requiring the safety inspector after the December launch, effective March 12.
On Thursday, the FAA confirmed Administrator Steve Dickson spoke with Musk on March 12 for 30 minutes “as part of the agency’s continuing engagement with the company”.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.
The FAA said Dickson “stressed the FAA’s role in protecting public safety by ensuring regulatory compliance. He made it clear that the FAA expected SpaceX to develop and foster a robust safety culture that stresses adherence to FAA rules”.
In February, the FAA said it required SpaceX to investigate the incident, including a comprehensive review of its safety culture, and added SpaceX’s corrective actions were incorporated into a February launch.
In January, Musk tweeted that the FAA’s “space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure” and that “humanity will never get to Mars” under its rules.
Musk tweeted this week that the FAA and other regulators were “fair & sensible …. 99.9% of the time, I agree with regulators! On rare occasions, we disagree. This is almost always due to new technologies that past regulations didn’t anticipate.”