Two news articles today suggest that a number of government officials, environmental groups, and some news media are beginning to team up to damage SpaceX and hinder its ability to succeed.
First we have this Verge article, aimed at suggesting that SpaceX violated its launch license and ignored FAA warnings not to launch during a December 9th test flight of the eighth Starship prototype.
Minutes before liftoff, Elon Musk’s SpaceX ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration that launching its first high-altitude Starship prototype last December would violate the company’s launch license, confidential documents and letters obtained by The Verge show. And while SpaceX was under investigation, it told the FAA that the agency’s software was a “source of frustration” that has been “shown to be inaccurate at times or overly conservative,” according to the documents.
The article generally takes the side of the FAA, suggesting that SpaceX was lax and nonchalant about the risks relating to weather and launch conditions, and proceeded with its launch even though FAA officials thought it unsafe. It also quotes Wayne Monteith, the head of the FAA’s space division, blasting SpaceX for showing “a concerning lack of operational control and process discipline that is inconsistent with a strong safety culture,” claiming that FAA software showed a risk to nearby buildings and homes should the rocket explode in the air.
However, buried far down in the article it also notes,
SpaceX agreed to take over a dozen corrective measures but defended its own data and decision-making. The company criticized the FAA’s launch-weather modeling software. The software’s results, SpaceX said, can be intentionally interfered with to provide “better or worse results for an identical scenario.”
SpaceX has complained to the FAA in the past about the software, but “this feedback has not driven any action, contributing to the situation described above,” the report said. A “closer and more direct dialogue” with FAA officials would’ve smoothed the FAA discussions before SN8’s launch, SpaceX added. [emphasis mine]
In other words, SpaceX believed the software to imprecise and easily manipulated, thus allowing government officials the freedom to use it for their own purposes outside of simply safety concerns. The fact that a later Starship prototype did explode just prior to landing and did no apparent damage to any surrounding structures suggests SpaceX’s criticism might have had some validity.
Meanwhile, another government official, this time the county district attorney in Boca Chica, is teaming up with an environmental group that wants to stop development in the Rio Grande region to threaten SpaceX for closing roads in connection with its test program there.
The Cameron County District Attorney has sent a letter to SpaceX warning that they may be violating the law by closing county roads and hiring security that may not be licensed to carry weapons and furthermore requests details on their road closure hours.
In a letter sent to the senior director of SpaceX, Shyamal Patel, District Attorney Luis Saenz outlines concerns with some of the aerospace company’s operations.
This is a response following the letter sent to the DA and Judge Eddie Trevino, by the non-profit organization Save RGV, which called for the cease of road closures due to violations of agreements from 2013 and 2014 by the Cameron County and General Land Office, and the Federal Aviation Administration respectively.
The DA threatened to charge the company with crimes and also called for law enforcement to not cooperate with SpaceX until he was satisfied the company was in full compliance. Yet, he also admitted that much of the dispute could simply be due to “clerical errors.”
While it is perfectly correct to demand that SpaceX comply with the law and fly its rockets safely, it is also perfectly reasonable to be very skeptical of government officials who make these kinds of demands or accusations. Recent history tends to show that it is the government officials who are wrong-headed or playing power games, and that SpaceX’s engineering and actions are generally correct and thoughtfully considered.
Moreover, I wonder if the several thousand people now working in the Boca Chica area for SpaceX, jobs that did not exist before, would favor having the company shut down, by either the FAA, this DA, or this particular special-interest environmental group.