Regulators withhold Starship SN9 flight approval, test delayed
When SpaceX employees in South Texas woke up this morning, they likely expected they’d be flying their Starship SN9 prototype on a high-altitude test, hopefully ending with a successful landing. However, the regulatory process appeared to keep the test article firmly planted on the ground.
Today, Jan. 28, 2021, could have seen the Starship SN9 prototype vehicle fly to 10 kilometers and perform an aerodynamic descent and landing flip maneuver, similar to last month’s SN8 flight (but with a better landing outcome). However, it appears various regulatory issues involving the Federal Aviation Administration, which SpaceX is required to get approval from to actually leave the ground, meant the company could only attempt a wet dress rehearsal — fueling the vehicle and aborting right before the any engine ignition.
Schrodinger’s flight approval
This morning, SpaceX teams at the company’s Boca Chica test facility in South Texas began making preparations for a 10 kilometer hop. The small number of people that lived in the nearby Boca Chica Village had also evacuated, as is required for safety when there is an expectation for a high-altitude flight.
However, around 11:30 a.m. CDT (17:30 UTC), the temporary flight restriction up to the test altitude was abruptly canceled. Known as TFRs, these notices define temporarily restricted airspace, which aircraft operators must remain outside of. In order to actually leave the ground, though, SpaceX also needs authorization for the test by the FAA, something the company had apparently not yet received this morning.
To make matters more strange, there was a message on the FAA’s regulatory website stating that the launch for today was scrubbed. However, SpaceX personnel at the South Texas launch facility continued to ready Starship SN9 for flight, just as the would have done had they been given regulatory approval.
Additionally, if the high-altitude flight had been canceled, that would mean the residents living at nearby Boca Chica Village, which is located about 1.5 miles (2.5 kilometers) from the launch pad, could return to their homes. But according to at least one resident, who also reports for NASASpaceflight.com, SpaceX employees were telling residents they were still hoping for a launch and could, in fact, not return.
So with no official word on whether SpaceX was actually attempting to gain approval to fly, company CEO Elon Musk tweeted what seemed to be personal frustration with the FAA’s regulatory process.
“Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” Musk tweeted. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
Soon after, Eric Berger of Ars Technica tweeted that Musk was apparently “working the phones” with the FAA in order to try to secure approval for an attempt.
Additionally, Irene Klotz of Aviation Week tweeted that she was told the required data for FAA safety assessment of SpaceX’s 10 kilometer SN9 test flight was “not fully submitted by compliance personnel.”
In the meantime, with the area cleared, SpaceX proceeded with filling Starship SN9 tanks with liquid oxygen and liquid methane, just as they would regardless of whether the company was attempting a wet dress rehearsal, a static fire, or even a high-altitude flight. It was anybody’s guess what was going to actually take place.
Then just before 3 p.m. CDT (21:00 UTC), once the vehicle was fueled to the point it would have been enroute to an actual launch or static fire of its engines, the tanks started to vent a massive amount of pressure. This signaled the end of what turned out to be a wet dress rehearsal, and the end to a long day of speculation with very few answers.
The FAA did issue a statement to Irene Klotz of Aviation Week who tweeted it out: “Not sure where the miscommunication happened, but @spacex never had @faa authorization for flight test today. ‘There are outstanding safety issues that need to be resolved before the FAA will approve the next test flight.’ – FAA PAO Steve Kulm.”
With major activities for today over, it appears Boca Chica Village residents are also being ordered to evacuate by 8 a.m. CDT (14:00 UTC) tomorrow, Jan. 29, as well, with road closures being issued from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. (14:00 to 20:00 UTC). There is also a TFR issued for tomorrow, which closes the airspace for the potential test. All that is needed is good weather, no technical issues and, of course, FAA approval.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.