SpaceX ignored multiple warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration before the launch of its Starship prototype in December, which the company was told would violate their launch license, The Verge reports.
The Verge notes that launch violations rarely occur in the aerospace industry despite the increased activity among private contractors. However, the outlet obtained confidential documents and letters that, according the Verge, "show how SpaceX prioritized speed over safety when launching on its own private rocket playground."
Although SpaceX is under investigation, the FAA has not sanctioned the company for violating its launch license despite voicing criticism.
FAA space division chief Wayne Monteith said in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell that the company’s violation of its launch license is "inconsistent with a strong safety culture. Although the report states that all SpaceX parties believed that such risk was sufficiently low to comply with regulatory criteria, SpaceX used analytical methods that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window."
The FAA previously confirmed the launch violation to the Verge in January, but the newly uncovered documents "reveal what SpaceX employees knew before liftoff and detail how the company responded to its violation in the aftermath," including the warnings that the FAA issued before the launch.
The agency repeatedly rejected SpaceX’s modeling and weather data in the lead up to the launch of SN8, with the FAA noting that its own models showed that if the rocket were to explode, it would cause a shockwave that, thanks to local weather conditions such as wind speed, could put nearby houses at risk. The FAA refused a request from SpaceX to waive the safety threshold that was made just hours before the launch was scheduled. Although the refusal caused SpaceX to pause the countdown clock, the company’s director of launch operations reportedly restarted the clock a short time later.
Just 15 minutes before the launch, "the FAA informed SpaceX that the weather data provided was not sufficient," according to the agency’s report.
The Verge notes that "SpaceX employees left the FAA meeting for the company’s launch control room ahead of SN8’s launch. Minutes before liftoff, an FAA safety inspector speaking on an open phone line warned SpaceX’s staff in the launch control room that a launch would violate the company’s launch license."
However, the company’s staff ignored this warning because they "assumed that the inspector did not have the latest information," according to the SpaceX report, and launched the rocket.
Monteith said in his letter to Shotwell that the company went ahead with the launch "based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions,’ rather than procedural checks and positive affirmations," and said that "these actions show a concerning lack of operational control and process discipline that is inconsistent with a strong safety culture."
Despite this, the agency’s investigates reportedly could not determine if the violation of the company’s launch license was intentional, which is part of the reason why the FAA did not conduct a larger investigation into the matter, according to the Verge’s sources who were involved in or briefed on the investigation and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
SpaceX did not respond to the Verge’s request for comment.
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