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GAO wants the FAA to exert more control over future launch mishap investigations

We’re here to help you! A new GAO report now calls for the FAA to change how it does investigations after launch mishaps, both exerting more control of the investigations as well as demanding companies release more proprietary information after the investigation is complete.

The Government Accountability Office wants the FAA to improve how it investigates space launch mishaps, especially how it decides whether to do an investigation itself or allow the operator to do it. Historically operators are allowed to investigate their own mishaps under FAA supervision, but over the course of 50 mishaps since 2000, GAO found the FAA has not evaluated whether that’s an effective approach. GAO also champions creating a mechanism for sharing lessons learned among operators even though efforts in the past have not succeeded.

This GAO report proves several conclusions I have noted in the past year.

First, the so-called “investigation” by the FAA into the first Starship/Superheavy launch was utterly bogus, as I have repeatedly suggested. The FAA had no ability to do any investigations on its own. It merely rubber-stamped SpaceX’s conclusions, but did so as slowly as possible so as to delay the company’s effort. Before Joe Biden was installed as president, the FAA would quickly permit further launches once a company completed its investigation. Under Biden, that policy has changed to slow-walk approvals.

This also means the present “investigation” by the FAA into the second Starship/Superheavy launch is bogus as well. When SpaceX announces its investigation is complete and all engineering fixes have been accomplished, any further delay from the FAA will be entirely political.

Second, it appears the Biden administration is applying pressure to both the GAO and the FAA to increase this regulatory control. It wants the FAA to write new procedures for determining when it will take control of an investigation rather than let the company do it. While providing some clarity to this decision could be beneficial, it is likely this change under the Biden administration will work against free enterprise. It will give the government a procedure for grabbing control, and holding it for as long as it desires. Politics will become part of any mishap investigation, rather than leaving it solely to engineering.

Third, the desire of the goverment to make companies reveal the details of the investigation, including propertiary information, will only squelch future innovation. Why develop new technology if you will be forced to give it away free during testing, when things are certain to go wrong?

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • pzatchok

    At least they are not asking that the Forest Service do the investigation.

    You would be surprised at what some of the forest service does. they actually had a hand in the Space shuttle 747 ferry ship.
    They had a hand in managing the fuel for the plane.

    Every government agency possible got a little graft out of the shuttle program.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Just another stab to establish control from another part of the government.

    It is the only thing they know how to do.

  • Dennis P Keating

    Does anyone think this would have happened to Bezos’s space company vs. the Musk’s? Reminds me of Ayn Rand’s Reardon Steel.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “Politics will become part of any mishap investigation, rather than leaving it solely to engineering.

    The FAA never really did much good in reducing accidents. Through the 1970s, airline accidents killing passengers were routine headline news, in America. At that time, the operators of airlines in America realized that with the increase in air traffic, these headlines would soon come weekly, scaring passengers from the safest form of transportation. Since the FAA was not doing the job it was created to do — government was once again failing, despite being here to help — the airlines took it upon themselves to improve airline safety, and what a good job they did, too. It only took them 20 years to make the improvement, which the FAA couldn’t do in 50 years, and in the past 22 years, major American airline companies have only lost one passenger’s life in an accident.

    When we let government run things, even when government thinks it is on our side, we don’t get what we want. When We the People fix our own problems, we get the results that we want.

    We saw this same phenomenon with the Starship bellyflop tests. After each failure, SpaceX investigated its own failure and made improvements. In about half a year and half a dozen test flights, SpaceX was able to succeed in one of the most unlikely maneuvers ever. If you saw it in a movie, you would have immediately known it to be fiction with special effects. With the full Integrated Test Flights, government has kindly offered to help assure the investigations are properly done, and we have had only two test flights in the past seven months (or two years, if you count SpaceX’s desires). This kind of centralized control is not as helpful as government thinks.

    It is almost as though the government is trying to take credit for the success of the commercial airline companies and thinks it can, overnight, transfer that kind of safety into rocketry. Does the FAA’s lack of knowledge of airline safety translate into expertise of rocket science?

    The FAA’s incremental resolutions to individual problems does nothing to solve the problems of the process. It was the effort of We the People, not they the government, that solved our airline problem, and it was We the People that solved our problem of easy, inexpensive access to space, which NASA failed to do.

    Government is not a problem solver. Each time it solves a problem, it creates at least one other, and sometimes it creates problems without solving any problem at all. Either way, it is at great expense to everyone else, which is why government spends so much money, these days. Even NASA’s flagship projects are failing to give us value for our tax money. SpaceX rapidly and easily, and on far less budget, replaced NASA in showing the world how freedom succeeds better than central control. Yay, free market capitalism. Boo, Marxism.

    Government can only protect us from foreign and domestic enemies and can act as a disinterested third party in the peaceable resolution of disputes, and lately it has failed miserably in doing any of those duties. Government is failing at everything it does, even to the point of having to double its tax collector force — it can no longer efficiently extort money from us so it can continue funding its failing policies.

    They’re from the government, and they are here to help. Reagan was right. Those are scary words.

  • Jeff Wright

    The GAO bashes space in general. I ignore them.

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