watership down

What SpaceX has to do to convince the FAA to let Starship fly

Inside Elon Musk's fraught relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration

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Starship on the launch pad at Boca Chica, Texas in 2023.
Starship on the launch pad at Boca Chica.
Photo: SpaceX

Elon Musk doesn’t like being told what to do. That’s, in part, why he decided that his company SpaceX would build its own launch site on private land in Texas as an alternative to the pads he leases from the US government.

Eight years after breaking ground on a spaceport at Boca Chica, the company has only made one attempt at flying a rocket to orbit from there. In April, the first flight of Starship, the company’s massive new launch vehicle, failed—not unusual for young rockets. But the system designed to destroy the rocket in the event of an emergency didn’t behave the way the company expected, either. The launch pad itself, tested for the first time by 33 powerful rocket engines firing at once, dissolved, pelting the area surrounding the pad with chunks of rock. Sand was hurled into the air and rained down on communities six miles away from the launch site.


Shortly thereafter, Musk said he expected to fly the rocket again in about eight weeks. He said so again in June. Now, four months since the launch attempt, the company is still working to regain its launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial spaceflight in the US. Last week, SpaceX submitted a final report on the incident to the agency, which will need to approve its conclusions; then, SpaceX will need to take corrective actions and have its launch license modified to reflect them.

“SpaceX must submit updated information before its license can be modified or more flights added,” an FAA spokesperson told Quartz. “The update must include corrective actions identified in the mishap investigation report and any other changes material to public health and safety and the safety of property. The FAA will evaluate the new material and ensure it complies with all regulatory requirements prior to modifying the license to authorize future launch operations.”


Nonetheless, the US Coast Guard has issued a warning to mariners that rocket launches could take place off the coast of Boca Chica as soon as Aug. 31. While such notifications are routine and don’t guarantee a launch will take place, the announcement suggests SpaceX is confident it can win over the agency in the next 10 days. (SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment.)

To do so, the company will need to make progress on a number of issues, but two stand out as potential safety risks that the FAA will scrutinize closely. One is the self-destruct system, and the other is the new infrastructure to ensure the violent energies of the world’s most powerful rocket can be contained.

How to build a spaceport from scratch

When SpaceX started building out its first launch site in the territorial US, the company hired Brian Mosdell for the job. An aerospace engineer, Mosdell had worked on rocket programs at Boeing and United Launch Alliance before joining up with SpaceX. His main task was converting a launch site leased from the US Air Force at Cape Canaveral to suit a modern rocket, the Falcon 9, by building out the infrastructure and ensuring it met regulatory requirements.


After years in staid traditional aerospace, Mosdell enjoyed SpaceX’s culture of aggressive problem solving. His team refurbished old propellant tanks and air compressors to keep costs down, and worked 80-hour weeks to get the pad ready for the rocket. He wound up working on seven Falcon 9 launches before leaving the company in 2014. Now, he advises rocket companies setting up new launch sites.

The push to move off a government range, Mosdell says, was driven by Musk’s desire to reduce the costs of supervision. The engineer says that the Air Force charged SpaceX to review license submissions, and that the quality of the feedback varied. But moving off the range wasn’t necessarily a panacea.


“I kept trying to impart to him that you may go to a different place and not have the Air Force overseeing you, but all the FAA regulations will just be copied out of the [Air Force] regulations,” Mosdell says. “It’s kind of the same thing.”

The other challenge is simply starting with a blank slate. At Cape Canaveral, there was a concrete launch pad, flame ducts, plumbing and power in place already. All of that had to be built at Boca Chica, including laying down what might be as much as $15 million worth of concrete. And that construction required a lengthy and still controversial environmental review process, which was concluded in 2022 with an official “finding of no significant impact” by the FAA.


That teed up SpaceX for its first orbital launch attempt in April, following a series of low-altitude test flights by Starship prototypes. By far the most curious decision was not installing a system to pump thousands of gallons of water below the rocket as it launches to absorbs the massive amount of acoustic and thermal energy it generates. This is done to protect the sensitive payloads at the top of the vehicle, but also prevents the kind of damage that occurred during that April launch.

“My feeling was they made a huge mistake by trying to launch that thing without water in the flame bucket,” Mosdell said. After the launch, Musk said that the company had been working on a dampening system but it wasn’t ready in time; now that system is installed and has been demonstrated during limited test firing.


Still, more may be need to be done: Pumping out all that water generally requires permits and infrastructure to retain or clean it. “Any time you’re dealing with groundwater, you have to go through permitting, the EPA and local jurisdictions [and] show how much water we’re going to dump on the ground, here’s the composition of it, pure water or...other chemicals from whatever else is happening,” Mosdell says.

SpaceX acknowledged as much in its environmental assessment (pdf), saying that if necessary it would build retention ponds to capture the water and remove it, and obtain the appropriate permits to do so from the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). That could present a significant obstacle to flying a rocket by Aug. 31. A TCEQ spokesperson told Quartz that the agency’s staff is working with SpaceX to determine whether the company’s pressurized water system will require a permit or other approval, and that no decision has been made.


And then there’s that pesky flight termination system. Musk hasn’t said much about what went wrong, but the 40-second delay between the system’s activation and the destruction of the vehicle is a real issue. Mosdell says some of the things FAA officials would personally verify were the transmitters and antennas for the flight termination system, because of its close link to their primary mission of ensuring public safety. That suggests the agency will carefully scrutinize any changes that SpaceX makes to the current system.

The US government is still figuring out private spaceflight

SpaceX’s own success is one reason for growing regulatory scrutiny. While the FAA was inclined to sit back and let the Air Force take the lead at Cape Canaveral, the rise of SpaceX and other private rocket makers have led the FAA to take a larger role than in the past.


“The FAA is trying to elbow their way in and get their feet in the door and have certainly insight, crossing over into the bounds of authority, a bigger role in the control room,” Mosdell says.

He’s not a huge fan of that development; he advises rocket makers to push back against unnecessary FAA involvement—“bogging down launch operations to stop and educate people who don’t really understand what’s going on.” Still, he says that “if you had a big launch vehicle and launching from Texas or Minnesota or wherever, I could see how public interest would be served by FAA involvement if it was at the right expertise level.”


Exactly who has the right expertise is a major question; engineers at private space firms are typically compensated significantly more than FAA civil servants, which often leads to suspicion of their abilities and conclusions. In 2021, SpaceX launched a rocket at Boca Chica in direct contravention of the FAA after a dispute over a weather model that suggested an explosion would lead to damage in nearby communities. While the flight did end with a bang, no damage occurred in the surrounding community. Still, SpaceX was grounded for two months after that incident but not fined. Musk smarted, though, tweeting that “the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure.”

The incident made FAA safety officials leery. And it was echoed in the aftermath of the orbital launch attempt this year, when predictions about debris made by SpaceX’s internal models turned out to be incorrect.


That led the FAA’s work with other rocket companies to come to a “screeching halt,” Mosdell said, because of concerns over the accuracy of the methodology those companies were using—“How come the analysis with SpaceX didn’t match what happened?”

That level of concern may have something to do with how the FAA will respond to SpaceX this time around. Wayne Monteith, the former head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Spaceflight, told the New Yorker that “I didn’t see that a fine would make any difference. He could pull that out of his pocket. However, not allowing launches, that would get the attention of a company that prides itself on being able to iterate and go fast.”


Exactly how fast SpaceX can go will be determined by how the FAA handles re-licensing SpaceX to launch Starship again. FAA officials will have been involved in the investigation from the beginning, and typically an official report on a mishap will reflect a consensus between the regulator and a company. But if there’s one thing that Musk doesn’t come to easily, it’s a consensus.