FAA under scrutiny from U.S. House Committee for handling of SpaceX launch license violation
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The House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee announced Monday that it is investigating the December launch of the SpaceX Starship SN8 spacecraft, just one day before the launch of its Starship SN11.
Prior to the SN8 launch, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) deemed that it exceeded the maximum allowed risk to the public, citing the potential for “far field blast overpressure.” If the vehicle were to explode on impact, far field blast overpressure could cause a hazard to the general public by creating a shock wave that damages windows far from the impact site.
SpaceX submitted a request to have its FAA launch license waived, which would have allowed them to conduct the Starship SN8 launch despite the potential hazard. The FAA denied the waiver; however, SpaceX proceeded with the launch anyway.
Due to its noncompliance, the FAA stated that SpaceX was “to conduct an investigation of the incident, including a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline.” While certain terms of the launch license were modified following the investigation, these modifications remain unclear and the matter was closed with little publicity.
Some officials in the space industry expressed concern about the lack of penalty for the private entity’s deliberate disregard for public safety.
“If a licensee violates the terms of their launch license, they did so knowing that an uninvolved member of the public could have been hurt or killed… They took a calculated risk with your life and property,” pointed out Jared Zambrano-Stout, former deputy chief of staff with the FAA.
The House of Representatives has also recently taken issue with the FAA’s handling of the violation.
In a March 25 letter addressed to FAA Administrator Steve Dickinson, two key congressmen voiced their concerns with the incident. Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Transportation Committee, and Rick Larsen (D-WA), chair of its aviation subcommittee, wrote of their “disappointment that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and… [had] not pursued any form of enforcement action.”
Dickinson had addressed the issue of public safety two days before the letter at a Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee meeting:
“So far, there have been six mishaps this fiscal year, some that ended in spectacular fireballs and went viral on social media, but all six of these were successful failures, because we were able to protect public safety.”
The FAA also noted on Monday that it had revised SpaceX’s license, requiring an FAA inspector be present for every SpaceX flight beginning March 12.
The SpaceX Starship SN11 was launched Tuesday morning and met a (literally) foggy demise, exploding somewhere along the way; where exactly remains unclear due to the poor visibility conditions at the time of launch. It appears that SpaceX has opted for compliance with federal regulation in light of the concerns that lawmakers have publicly addressed — the original SN11 launch had been scheduled for Monday, but was postponed because the required FAA Safety Inspector was unable to attend.
Canada Plans to Launch Moon Rover by 2026
Canadian Science Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne says Canada has plans to land a rover on the moon within the next five years.
The North American country will begin development on a robotic lunar rover in collaboration with NASA, Champagne announced on Wednesday. The Canadian Space Agency says an unmanned lunar rover would be used to collect imagery and measurements on the moon’s surface, while showcasing technology from Canadian companies.
The Canadian Space Agency said in a statement released Wednesday, that the mission will last one lunar night, which lasts about two weeks, and presents a wide range of technological challenges due to the extreme cold and dark of the moon’s surface.
Canada has ramped up the North American nations ambitions for space in recent years in large part by promoting Canadian commercial space technology companies. Three different commercial technologies based in Canada that have been funded by the Canadian Space Agency’s Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program are scheduled for lunar surface tests in 2022.
These include new planetary navigation systems developed by NGC Aerospace Ltd, an AI based flight computer developed by Mission Control Space Services, and multiple lightweight panoramic cameras developed by Canadaensys. Canada has been a primary partner of NASA in the development of the Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration, which hopes to establish a long-term sustainable presence on and around the moon by the end of the decade.
Technology from Canada is also supplying a robotic arm for the Artemis infrastructure, a moon-orbiting space station named ‘Gateway’.
CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques, wearing his flight suit, was present at the Wednesday announcement and is one of the Canadian based candidates for a four person mission traveling around the moon in the coming years.
The announcement came on the same day that the moon drifted through the Earth’s shadow, creating a superflower blood moon. The pledge to put a rover on the moon falls under the $150 million lunar exploration plan funded by the Canadian federal government, signed in 2019.
In addition to this plan, the Canadian government signed a deal with the U.S. government to send more Canadian astronauts to the moon as part of the Artemis mission in order to develop a sustainable presence on the moon.
SpaceX NASA lunar lander contract suspended following formal protest from competitors
Just two weeks after it announced its $2.9 billion contract to build NASA’s lunar lander spacecraft, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been asked to put the project on hold in light of formal protests filed with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) by competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics. All three space engineering firms had originally been in talks with NASA to collaborate on the Artemis project, which will be the first to put humans on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission nearly 50 years ago; however due to budgetary limitations, NASA chose to only work with SpaceX instead of all three companies.
SpaceX’s Starship rocket system, which is under development for both private and public use ferrying humans and cargo to the Moon and Mars, won the contract for its payload capacity and $2.9 billion bid — far cheaper than what Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin or Dynetics could offer, according to a NASA source selection document
In a lengthy formally-filed protest, Blue Origin accused NASA of making last-minute changes to the proposed lunar lander project that sacrificed the integrity of the project. It also claimed that NASA failed to attempt to negotiate a proposed price with it, where it had done so with SpaceX.
Bezos’s space firm called NASA’s decision “high risk,” claiming that the decision “eliminates opportunities for competition, significantly narrows the supply base, and not only delays, but also endangers America’s return to the Moon.”
“Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the [Human Landing System] contract has been suspended,” NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt said in a statement.
True to his devil-may-care attitude with regard to most matters, Musk responded to the Blue Origin protest on Twitter:
“Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol”
SpaceX sends four astronauts to the International Space Station
24 hours after liftoff from the launch site in Florida, the manned SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule safely docked with the International Space Station on Saturday morning. The Crew-2 flight is the second of its kind, with the newly-landed astronauts to relieve those who previously made the flight on the Crew-1 mission of their 6-month duties. Two American, one Japanese, and one European joined seven others from the US, Japan, and Russia already aboard the station.
The six-month mission has already reached some impressive milestones. The Friday launch marks the first reuse of a manned spacecraft capsule since the mid-1960s. In an all-time first, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket booster that propelled the capsule into space was reused as well. The Crew-2 mission was also SpaceX’s first to transport scientists from three different agencies: NASA, ESA, and JAXA.
Eleven astronauts is the highest number the station has seen in recent years, presenting some logistical problems for the four-day “direct handover” period before the Crew-1 astronauts return to earth. The Space Station has accommodations for up to seven people, meaning that two astronauts aboard will have to sleep in the docked capsules, and two others will be without beds.
Despite these challenges, the eleven ISS passengers have expressed exuberant excitement about their gathering. Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi, who was aboard the Crew-1 capsule which launched in November 2020, tweeted a photo of the eleven astronauts with this caption:
“We are happy eleven on #ISS! Welcome back to home away from home for 6 months!!!!!!”
Crew-1 will depart the ISS on April 30 following a weather-related delay, and is expected to splashdown in the Gulf of Mexico on May 1st after spending 18 hours in orbit.