SpaceX ignored multiple FAA warnings about December Starship launch: report

The incident is under investigation by Congress

Elon Musk's SpaceX ignored several warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration regarding safety regulations for its Starship SN8 launch in December 2020.

An FAA spokesperson told FOX Business on Wednesday that SpaceX had sought a waiver to "exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations," but was denied such request. 


"The on-site FAA safety inspector warned throughout the launch process that SpaceX was at risk of noncompliance. SpaceX decided to launch without FAA authorization," the spokesperson said, noting that the agency "took immediate action after the noncompliant launch, including directing a seven-week pause in Starship launch operations."

"FAA Administrator Steve Dickson emphasized the agency’s safety responsibility on a March 12 call with SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, making clear that he expects SpaceX to develop and foster a robust safety culture that strictly follows FAA rules," said the spokesperson. 

FOX Business reached out to SpaceX for comment on the matter, but did not immediately receive a response. 

A Tuesday report in The Verge alleged that the outlet had obtained letters and confidential documents that showed SpaceX had ignored "at least two warnings" related to the matter and that the spaceflight company told the FAA its software was a "source of frustration" and has been "shown to be inaccurate at times or overly conservative."

According to The Verge, in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell, the FAA’s space division chief Wayne Monteith said SpaceX's violation of its launch license was "inconsistent with a strong safety culture" and that "SpaceX used analytical methods that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window."

It's an accusation that The Verge said documents corroborate, prioritizing speed over safety. 

In this image from video made available by SpaceX, a Starship test vehicle sits on the ground after returning from a flight test in Boca Chica, Texas on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. (SpaceX via AP)

The first attempt at launch from SpaceX's South Texas Starship campus – that was FAA approved – was scrubbed in December due to an engine abort.

However, messages from The Verge purportedly show that the FAA rejected SpaceX's weather and launch modeling data the next day, stating that if the rocket exploded its shockwave may be a danger to residents nearby.

SpaceX reportedly ignored the objections, believing that an FAA safety inspector "did not have the latest information" and launched the SN8 prototype.

The Verge noted that it remains unclear if Musk had played a role in the decision to launch and that even after the SN8 blew up upon landing – with no damage or injuries – SpaceX defended its actions.

Later on, SpaceX allegedly proposed "corrective measures" to the FAA and anonymous sources told The Verge that FAA investigators could not determine whether or not the SN8 license violation was intentional.

Since then, SpaceX has launched more rockets at the Starship site and successfully landed its SN15 Starship prototype in May.

Musk has tweeted critically about the FAA since December, writing that the agency's "space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure."


"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," he said.

The House Transportation Committee has since opened an inquiry into the SN8 violation and the FAA's role in the incident.