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FAA defends SpaceX despite unauthorized launch of Starship SN8



Starship prototype SN8 flies over Boca Chica, Texas.

SpaceX

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s space office defended Elon Musk’s SpaceX in front of Congress, despite the company launching a Starship prototype in December without permission.

The House Transport and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on Wednesday on the FAA̵

7;s role in aerospace, in which the regulator worked to keep pace with the unprecedented growth of the U.S. rocket launch market over the past decade. In particular, the FAA is working to streamline the process of clearing and restricting airspace to launches that could delay or redirect flights.

During the hearing, the rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., That he and rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., Wrote a letter about SpaceX’s actions with reference to the Starship incident. DeFazio asked FAA Assistant Administrator Wayne Monteith what SpaceX has “done to address operational concerns” and “cultural issues.”

Despite Monteith’s previous internal criticism of the company, he defended SpaceX – as well as the FAA’s decision to allow further flights of its Starship prototype rockets.

“We would not have cleared them to start aircraft operations again if I had not been sure that they had changed their procedures effectively and addressed the safety culture issues that we saw,” Monteith said.

Earlier this year, Monteith criticized SpaceX for actions “contrary to a strong safety culture”, according to The Verge, after the company violated its FAA launch license with test flight of the Starship prototype rocket SN8 in December.

Monteith, who heads the FAA’s commercial space agency, reportedly said the company launched SN8 “based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions.’ One of the company’s violations included ignoring a security inspector’s warning not to start, in which SpaceX allegedly told the FAA that members of the Starship mission control “assumed the inspector did not have the latest information.”

After a successful altitude flight test, the SN8 exploded on impact with the ground as it attempted to land. Three test flights and destroyed Starship prototypes later, the SpaceX rocket SN15 successfully maintained the landing, where the company now moved on to the next flight milestone: a launch into orbit.

The Starship prototypes are about 150 meters high or about the size of a 15-story building, each powered by three Raptor rocket engines. Built of stainless steel, the prototypes represent the early version of the rocket that Musk unveiled in 2019 to transport goods and humans to the moon and Mars.

In particular, the House Transport and Infrastructure Committee did not invite SpaceX or Musk to testify at the “Starships and Stripes Forever” hearing, the committee’s communications director Kerry Arndt confirmed to CNBC. This meant that no SpaceX representatives were ready to answer questions about the recent inspection – as well as other consultation topics, as the company launches more FAA-licensed missions than any other US entity.

Instead, the hearing presented one of SpaceX’s biggest competitors – United Launch Alliance, the rocket-building joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin – and space tourism company Virgin Galactic.

SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment on the hearing.

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