The fallout from the fallout of a rocket explosion

SpaceX’s Starship failure set off a chain reaction of regulatory response.
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· 4 min read

SpaceX’s Starship took to the skies in April, albeit for a very short time. The launch of the world’s largest-ever spaceship was literally explosive—the Starship suffered a “rapid unscheduled disassembly,” or, simply put, blew up.

Starship’s debris spread all over the Boca Chica, Texas, launch site and beyond, dropping particulate matter well outside SpaceX’s projected blast zone, affecting wildlife and nearby communities.

While no injuries were reported, the failed test mission set off a chain of actions by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and surfaced new questions about the relationship between private space entities and the local and federal governments they interact with.

Following the launch, the FAA grounded the Starship program, as is standard procedure, until it completes its “mishap” investigation. That action did not stop conservation groups from suing the FAA in early May, claiming the Elon Musk-backed company was responsible for at least nine explosions at its spaceport and that the FAA failed to mandate a thorough environmental impact study before allowing SpaceX to expand its operations.

“After the regulator has given a go, the party to the external world that is watching this launch, the FAA, is responsible. It’s the regulator’s responsibility to make sure that they do all the checks and balances before giving the go,” Hussain Bokhari, senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, told Tech Brew. “Internally, the launch vehicle service providers and the regulators have to ensure that there are repercussions that are embedded into the go or no-go awarded to the launch service provider.”

FAA spokesperson Steve Kulm told Tech Brew in an emailed statement that “the investigation is taking into consideration all causal factors that could have led to the unsuccessful completion of the planned mission. It is designed to further enhance public safety and will determine the root cause of the event and identify corrective actions the operator must implement to avoid a recurrence of the event.”

The FAA “will be involved in every step of the process and will review, and must approve, the final report before the mishap investigation can be closed.”

Failures in the space industry aren’t rare. In fact, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket exploded in both 2015 and 2016. There have been a number of high-profile rocket explosions and launch failures in 2022 and 2023 alone, including those at ABL, Astra, Relativity Space, and Virgin Orbit.

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“You definitely want your rocket to succeed, but you have to be a realist in this world. if you’re flying something that is a first-time integrated flight test, the likelihood or the chances of you succeeding are very, very slim,” Bokhari said.

Bokhari said space companies normalizing the possibility of failure can help when their rockets actually do fail. Failures are part of rocket testing, and it is critical that companies demonstrate they are willing to adapt and grow from each failure, he added.

“The FAA, the agencies, and everybody is well aware that with new launch vehicles, there is a risk of failure,” Bokhari said. “But it is their appetite for failure, and the willingness to recover from that failure, that is objectively identified and evaluated.”

Caleb Henry, director of research at Quilty Analytics, told Tech Brew that the general enthusiasm surrounding SpaceX’s operation in Texas could easily sour.

“Launchers generally trigger an enthusiastic response from their local community. Your state is contributing, and humanity has reached into the stars,” Henry said. “It is still an area that is unfamiliar, and so while I think SpaceX has been pretty heartily embraced by Texas, and even to some extent by the locals, there’s still a newness there and an unfamiliarity there that can make people cautious.”

The conservation groups suing the FAA are asking the agency to revoke SpaceX’s license to launch and to require an environmental impact study. While that would deal a serious blow to SpaceX, Bokhari said it was unlikely the FAA would revoke the license, but said the FAA could fine SpaceX.

“It’s not good business to have a rocket that repeatedly fails. As far as where would a regulator draw the line? I would imagine that a rocket that repeatedly violated the FAA rules is one that would run into regulatory trouble,” Henry said.

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