Pete Buttigieg was confirmed by the Senate this week as Secretary of Transportation. In his remarks to civil service employees, he urged them to embrace “imaginative, bold, forward thinking.” He can start by getting the unimaginative, hide-bound FAA all the way off SpaceX’s back.
SpaceX, the only private contractor in history to be man-certified to carry astronauts to space, versus the old model of contractors custom-building NASA-owned rockets, is getting stonewalled by the FAA at its Boca Chica, Texas launch facility. The FAA stands its ground on law, and the Secretary of Transportation has wide latitude here.
The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984, as amended and codified at 51 U.S.C.§§ 50901-50923, authorizes the Secretary of Transportation to oversee, license, and regulate commercial launch and reentry activities, and the operation of launch and reentry sites within the United States or as carried out by U.S. citizens. Section 50905 directs the Secretary to exercise this responsibility consistent with public health and safety, safety of property, and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States. In addition, Section 50903 requires the Secretary to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space launches and reentries by the private sector. As codified at 49 CFR § 1.83(b), the Secretary has delegated authority to carry out these functions to the FAA Administrator.
When SpaceX, or anyone, launches rockets from a NASA facility, NASA gets to run the show. Range safety, airspace coordination, and everything else falls under the space agency for their facilities. But for private launch facilities, the FAA still regulates airspace, and therefore anything that flies.
However, SpaceX’s rapid development and prototype cycles have turned the FAA into an obstacle to progress. Specifically, two of SpaceX’s heavy lift prototypes have exploded (SN8, SN9) during the landing phase of their test missions. The missions themselves have been successful, because they were not launched to test landing procedures, but to validate the aerodynamics of the rocket body and its control surfaces. In these tests, SpaceX learned so much that it canceled other test flights.
The FAA is upset, claiming that it never authorized the launch of SN8. Now, it wants to flex its authority to “investigate” the “mishap” of both SN8 and SN9 launches. While SpaceX celebrates successful test prototype launches, the FAA is treating this like a commercial jet incident. The two things could not possibly be more different, other than both fly through the air.
From The Verge:
“The FAA will continue to work with SpaceX to evaluate additional information provided by the company as part of its application to modify its launch license,” FAA spokesman Steve Kulm said Friday. “While we recognize the importance of moving quickly to foster growth and innovation in commercial space, the FAA 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.”
SpaceX investor Elon Musk was justifiably upset that the agency responsible for aviation wants to poke its nose into his rapid development cycles dealing with rockets. He tweeted “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.”
I agree. The FAA needs to regulate airspace, in the sense that SpaceX needs a range exclusionary zone, like the military has its own exclusions on civilian airspace based on mission requirements (called an MOA). SpaceX launches from Boca Chica, a pretty remote coastal Texas community, in a place that’s very happy to host the heavy lift fabrication and launch facility.
The FAA’s nose-poking into the launch vehicle design is only going to incentivize SpaceX to look elsewhere (as in not in the United States). Blowing up big rockets is part and parcel of designing big rockets. Trying to get the FAA to sift through the bits to determine “why” the rocket exploded when SpaceX knows full well exactly why due to realtime data collection, is nothing but petty stupid government tricks.
Secretary Buttigieg would do well to take his “imaginative, bold, forward thinking” and give some to the FAA’s space division. They need to get off SpaceX’s back.