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SpaceX to FAA: Let us launch Starship/Superheavy before you complete the red-tape for the previous flight

Superheavy/Starship lifting off on March 14, 2024
Superheavy/Starship lifting off on March 14, 2024

According to the FAA, SpaceX has officially asked the FAA to allow it to launch the next Starship/Superheavy test orbital launch before the agency officially completes its mishap investigation into the previous flight in March.

In a statement sent to ValleyCentral, the FAA stated that on April 5, SpaceX requested the FAA make a “public safety determination” as part of the Starship flight test mishap. “If the FAA agrees no public safety issues were involved in the mishap, the operator may return to flight while the mishap investigation remains open, provided all other license requirements are met.”

With this modification in place, SpaceX would be able to launch the fourth Starship test flight while the mishap investigation of the third flight is still open.

When these requests are received, the FAA evaluates safety-critical systems, the nature of the consequences of the mishap, adequacy of existing flight analysis, safety organization performance and environmental factors, the statement added. The FAA stated it is reviewing the request and will be “guided by data and safety at every step of the process.”

What does this request tell us? First, as expected SpaceX has completed its own investigation into the March launch and installed the upgrades it considers necessary. Second, the FAA however has not, even though the FAA has absolutely no competence in this matter. It is merely retyping the SpaceX report.

Third, SpaceX now realizes that the FAA will not have finished that retyping when SpaceX is ready to launch sometime in the next three weeks. Rather than sit and wait, as it did on the previous two test launches, it wants the FAA to recognize reality and let it proceed. Why wait when the FAA is literally contributing nothing to the process?

Will the FAA do so? I suspect there are people in the FAA who would very much like to. I also know that there are others both in the FAA and higher up the command chain (mostly in the White House) that like the idea of slowing SpaceX down, mostly for petty political reasons. We should not be surprised if those higher ups use their clout and insist the FAA reject this request.

If so, the fourth test launch of Starship/Superheavy will likely be further delayed, though by how much is unclear. Shortly after the March test launch I predicted that the next flight would occur in the June/July timeframe, not early May as SpaceX was then predicting, and the delay will be mostly because of FAA red tape. It now appears that prediction will be correct.

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  • David Eastman

    Where do you get information to back your statement that SpaceX has completed the investigation and turned it over to the FAA? I’ve seen no announcement of that, and it’s always been publicly announced before. And usually, the license has come two to three weeks after that announcement.

    The FAA announcement of this request from SpaceX mentions and repeats the “determination that there is no public safety risk.” It would be a hefty, and obviously political, stretch to say that there is in fact such a risk, so I expect this request to be granted, though they might do so slowly enough that it doesn’t actually matter.

  • David Eastman: I am speculating, based on past history and present facts. That SpaceX made this request in early April suggests it expected its investigation to be completed then or very soon thereafter. Based on its previous work after the previous launches it was expected that its investigation would be completed by early May, which was also when SpaceX said it would be ready to launch.

    That SpaceX now is doing its dress rehearsal countdowns of the rocket also suggests its investigation is completed and it has installed the corrections it thinks were required on that rocket.

  • David Eastman

    An alternate viewpoint on why SpaceX has requested this “let us fly before the investigation is complete and signed off” waiver is that at least some of the changes and upgrades to resolve the anomalies observed on IFT-3 will presumably not be going onto the remaining V1 starships, and there are three of those currently at Starbase, if I remember correctly. If their next flight permit was predicated on those issues being resolved, then they would either have to extensively rework those Starships, or scrap them and wait for the first V2 Starship to be ready.

    SpaceX has stated that the current V1 Starship cold gas thrusters are not delivering the necessary control performance and they are going to move to hot gas thrusters. That would be a major refit to an already complete Starship if required. They are also moving to a new forward wing design for V2, and likewise that would be a substantial rework as it appears that the attachment points will move slightly and are certainly shaped differently.

  • David Eastman: Ah, you might be correct. And if so, the situation could become very dire indeed for SpaceX. Most FAA officials would likely go along with SpaceX’s request to use these older boosters without these changes. Will higher ups in the Biden administration go along as well? I have great doubts.

  • Jeff Wright

    FAA may become more pliable.

    Boeing’s woes happened under THEIR watch, so straining at gnats with regard to SpaceX’s automated tests makes us all wonder if they were on the take in allowing behavior that actually put human beings at risk with regards to passenger plane incidents of late.

    They either allow this, or be slimed.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Last night about 10 pm (5/23) Musk posted IFT 4 in about 10 days. Yes, yes that is Musk time.

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