Discover more from Planet Earth & Beyond
SpaceX Is Getting Impatient With The FAA
Musk is pushing to get a launch licence ASAP.
Unless you have been living under a rock, you will by now know about Elon’s pride and joy, Starship. Sadly, this mega-rocket attempted an orbital launch back in April to no success. In fact, this launch was such a spectacular failure that the FAA revoked Starship’s launch licence, and the FAA and SpaceX are being sued by environmental groups over the massive damage caused by the launch. Damage, I might add, that wouldn’t have happened if SpaceX hadn’t launched before their launch pad was finished. But since then, SpaceX has pulled itself together, properly rebuilt the launchpad, redesigned the rocket, and is ready to launch. There is only one problem: they still don’t have a launch licence and are still effectively grounded. Well, Musk is now getting impatient and is pressing the Senate to hurry the FAA up. Spoiler warning for this article: I’m going to rip into Musk.
Now, I have been covering this story for a while now, so if you don’t know about the failed launch, the aftermath, and Musk’s plan to reattempt the launch imminently, you can read my other articles here, here and here.
So, what is the current state of affairs with Starship? Well, Musk has claimed that Starship is ready to launch again, and SpaceX has done everything the FAA has asked them to implement in order to get a new launch licence and is just waiting for the FAA to dot the i’s and cross the t’s before they can launch once more. The FAA has said that their investigation into Starship has concluded and that the licence would be granted “somewhere in mid to late October.” However, they also pointed out that SpaceX still needs to make additional modifications before this can happen. So it appears Musk was fibbing when he said the rocket was ready.
** Quick interruption, if you want more from me, or interact with me, go follow me on Bluesky**
This is where this story takes a decidedly privileged angle.
SpaceX’s vice president for build and reliability recently told The Washington Post that he intends to press the Senate to streamline regulations and increase the number of Federal Aviation Administration staffers devoted to issuing space launch licences. Why? Well, Gerstenmaier has said, “With the flight rates that are increasing, with the other players that are coming on board, we see there’s potentially a big industry problem coming where the pace of government is not going to be able to keep up with the pace of development on the private-sector side.”
Now, from the outside, this might seem like a perfectly reasonable request. It is true that more and more spaceflight companies have emerged in recent years, and the FAA needs to adapt to a changing private sector.
However, this is a very thinly veiled attempt to reduce regulations around the space industry. I mean, “streamline regulations” is one of the weakest euphemisms out there, and Musk has publicly stated many times that he hates regulations and government intervention in his businesses (I wonder why).
But the FAA isn’t even the one being slow here. As the FAA spokesperson said, they were on track to get their licence by now, but SpaceX still had things to change to meet requirements. It’s actually SpaceX being slow!
Why? Well, that failed early launch set back their development massively. It took months just to get the launch pad rebuilt, let alone the changes the FAA required to regain the launch licence.
As I said, the launchpad wasn’t finished before the April launch. You see, unlike NASA, which uses massive, complex and expensive fire trenches to disperse a launch’s enormous amount of energy, Musk opted for a plain old launch pad, even though Starship is by far the most powerful rocket ever. To ensure the launch pad had any hope in hell of surviving, it needed to have a water dousing system and a giant water-cooler stainless-steel plate over it. However, back in April, these systems were still months from being ready. So when Starship launched, it utterly destroyed its launchpad, sending dangerous amounts of debris and dust into the local environment and even potentially damaging the rocket during the launch.
Needless to say, this premature launch was always going to be a massive health and safety, environmental and operative risk. It should have never happened, and both the FAA and SpaceX should never have let the launch go ahead.
As such, this push to “streamline regulations” is a desperate bid to allow SpaceX to get away with such careless operations. In their eyes, this damage and fallout are justified, and the FAA revoking their launch licence is what is getting in the way of their development, not their pointlessly rushed development.
So, why did SpaceX launch prematurely? Why didn’t Musk wait a few months until the launch pad was ready?
Well, I initially thought that it was because Musk wanted the publicity of launching on National Weed Day, also known as 4/20. But this new revelation that SpaceX is going behind the FAA’s back to change aviation regulations has made me rethink this stance.
You see, developing and building a launch vehicle like Starship costs a pretty penny, and Musk hasn’t done it with his money. Over the past few years, SpaceX has raised literally billions of dollars in private funding to get Starship off the ground and into commercial operations. It also has multibillion-dollar contracts deals with NASA for several lunar Artemis missions and private satellite launches.
Musk is famous for over-promising and underperforming. Back in 2018, he claimed Starship would be launching in late 2019. Needless to say, that didn’t happen, and development seems to have cost far more and taken far longer than he initially planned.
As such, Musk has a hoard of backers who have sunk hundreds of millions into his mega-rocket, only to see it get delayed repeatedly. For it to meet these launch contracts and start paying out on these investments, Starship really should have been doing multiple orbital tests by the middle of this year. As such, Starship is massively behind schedule.
It is now my opinion that this pressure is what made SpaceX and Musk approve such a premature, risky and nonsensical launch. The payoff is that if the launch went well, his backers and launch contractors would be happy, as it would have shown development. That is worth the risk, as it would enable them to take a giant leap toward commercial operations. However, while I think SpaceX knew there was a good chance the pad wouldn’t survive, I also think they massively underestimated the potential health and safety and environmental fallout it would cause. In fact, I don’t even think they properly investigated the potential risks at stake here at all.
So, rather than put their hands up and go, “We made a mistake; we should have waited for the pad to be ready and slightly delayed our planned launches.” Instead, They are pointing the finger at the FAA, making it seem like the red tape of this industry is in the way of its development, not their reckless approach. Even though it isn’t even certain that SpaceX has done everything the FAA requested them to do in order to gain a launch licence…
I want to remind you that Musk intends to build a fleet of 100 Starships and conduct 1,000 Starship launches per year. Each rocket uses the equivalent of 46 Terra Joules of energy. That is equivalent to roughly 11 kilo-tonnes, or 74% of the energy released by Little Boy, the bomb which flattened Hiroshima. What’s more, many of these launches will be crewed launches, both for organisations like NASA and for the private sector. Musk has even floated the idea of using a Starship as a superfast competitor to long-haul flights.
When dealing with this much potentially damaging power at such a vast scale, you should not be trying to “streamline regulations” (also known as deregulating) just because you can’t hit the deadlines you gave your investors and contractors. That is a path to potentially catastrophic events!
What is even more ridiculous is that SpaceX doesn’t need to rush Starship the way it is. They have over $5 billion in liquid cash within the company (as of June 2023). That is enough to mean they can service these loans and investors and afford to delay or cancel their current contracts without going bankrupt.
For me, this stinks of Musk. His constant bullshit around Tesla’s technology and self-driving capability just to further increase its stock price. The fact that Tesla uses the public to beta test his self-driving software, like he has the right to use you as his guinea pig. The fact that Tesla is under criminal investigation for mis-selling cars as already self-driving, leading to several fatal crashes. The fact that Tesla has got class-action lawsuits thrown out that aim to hold them accountable for deaths caused by their autonomous cars. The fact that Starship can run on carbon-neutral or low-carbon biofuel, but it doesn’t, despite his apparent climate agenda. And now, he wants to circumvent or reduce regulations because he is going too slowly due to a colossal mistake that he made. Musk utterly reeks of privilege and a “rules don’t apply to me” mentality. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Yes, this approach has significantly helped advance EV and space technology over the past decade. But eventually, it will either bite Musk or bite us.
Thanks for reading! Content like this doesn’t happen without your support. So, if you want to see more like this, don’t forget to Subscribe and follow us on Google News and Flipboard and follow me on Bluesky, or hit the share button below.