Is FAA causing trouble and slowing things down? or Is SpaceX doing the mischief?
The tussle between Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and SpaceX has always been in news. We rocket and space fans, often get the impression that FAA is a troublemaker who is delaying our favorite rocket to launch with 33 raptor engines.
In this article, we will try to understand what exactly is the scenario. Is FAA being too stringent with regulations? or is SpaceX being the troublemaker by taking the law in hand and asking for exceptions?
What is FAA and its role?
FAA is the main transportation agency of the US government that regulates all aspects of civil aviation in the country as well as over surrounding international waters.
The FAA regulates and ensures the safety of commercial space transportation, including rockets, through its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (generally referred to as FAA/AST or simply AST).
The AST’s regulatory responsibilities include ensuring that launch and reentry vehicles meet safety and environmental standards, conducting safety inspections, and providing oversight of launch and reentry operations. This includes coordinating with other government agencies for national security and foreign policy objectives.
Activities of SpaceX that bothers FAA (and many people)
Disruption to the daily lives of residents
Whenever SpaceX has to do a launch, they close the main road in Boca Chica. Starbase is situated next to a small neighborhood of a couple of dozen homes called Boca Chica Village, which is only accessible via one lone state highway that connects to Starbase. That road is frequently closed during tests and other demonstrations, limiting access to both the village and the nearby beach.
Add to this, the regular sonic booms and loud noises from launches and engine testing. Residents are often asked to leave their homes during the tests.
In a biological opinion given to the FAA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) noted there’s been a decrease in the piping plover population, an endangered bird that nests in Boca Chica, correlated with the increase in SpaceX activity in the area.
Many times the junk pieces of the exploded rocket have ended up in a wildlife reserve and SpaceX have denied not cleaning them up.
Why make an exception for one?
Although not much talked about, but this is important. FAA has an important role to play as a regulatory agency and it must not make an exception for SpaceX on any grounds. Since, making an exception for one can be cited by other private space firms in completely different scenarios and locations. One rule for all, that’s the need.
So all fault of SpaceX?
We all would agree that SpaceX as an organization is working on the edge of technology and with incredible speed. The top executives, led by Elon Musk have a strong emphasis on the “speed” of the execution. And this where most of the trouble comes in. In many instances, the review process takes longer than estimated. Cases of “pending review” and “pending approval” happen many times with no precise deadlines.
“It requires heroics” for vehicle operators to adjust rocket launch licenses. “You have to basically apply for a new license if an operator makes a change like switching launch pads at a spaceport. If we want to achieve rapid progress in space, the U.S. government must remove bureaucratic practices that run counter to innovation and speed,” SpaceX president & COO, Gwynne Shotwell said.
On 13th June 2022, FAA proposed more than 75 actions and changes to the Texas launch site to get approval. In January 2023, Gwynne Shotwell hinted at getting an FAA-approved launch of Starship in March.
Elon Musk also had said of February 2023 for orbital launch. This seems likely to be postponed to March/April.
Although, just 2 days ago, the FAA has proposed a $175,000 fine to SpaceX for not sharing that data within at least seven days of its august Falcon 9 launch which carried 53 Starlink satellites.
So, while things seem to be under control, FAA is putting a tight hold on all the activities and ensuring everything goes on abiding by the rules — in letter and spirit.