They Blew Up Another One…the FAA Was Not Amused

The United States Federal Aviation Administration does not agree with the mantra “You have to break a few few eggs to make an omelet”, not when those eggs are filled with rocket fuel. Yes, the SpaceX Starship prototype called SN9 finally flew. The nearly perfect flight gave us the best of both worlds as it awed us for several minutes while the rocket went through it’s test objectives, rising to an altitude of 10 kilometers and falling with style back down before ending its existence in an epic explosion when one of the two engines needed for a soft, upright landing failed to power up.

Ok, here’s the thing, our civilization has been launching rockets into orbit for my entire life…roughly 60 years. They say that rocket science is hard, and from most folks’ perspective it actually is and it hasn’t gotten any easier. However, from the particular viewpoint of those who do it, certain essential elements of it are now well practiced and pretty much routine. Much risk has been not just engineered out of rocket science but literally flown out of it. Most rocket science is held in common from the Sparrow air to air missile all the way up to the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta Heavy. All of the Old Space players make their living on those tried and true concepts. Oh, they innovate and improve designs and do marvelous things to continually make launches safer, but the core concepts were invented a very long time ago and the old launch services companies ride that train. They follow rules that were learned by blowing up hundreds of rockets in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

Some new rocket companies work to break that cycle and LAND their rockets instead of just treating them all like missiles and throwing them away after just one flight. You might call SpaceX and Blue Origin pioneers in this very new field of rocket science. SpaceX is by far the most aggressive of the two and is the only one of those two that actually flies orbital-class rockets and makes the safe recovery of components of those rockets profitable…engineering them to survive the rigors of launch and recovery. They move very swiftly to try new things, often choosing to test out certain flaws in flight rather than finding them slower in more detailed engineering.

The Starship SN8 and SN9 prototypes both crashed on landing and the Federal Aviation Administration is not happy with SpaceX about it. They don’t enjoy watching rockets explode as much as the rest of us so… probably because it’s their job to prevent flying things from crashing and burning.

The fact that the FAA approved the SpaceX SN9 flight at all, saying that the preparations and vehicle complied with all safety and related federal regulations, does not mean that SpaceX and the FAA had kissed and made up. The FAA has now said that they will oversee the investigation into this latest crash. The SN10 rptotype, which had been brought out to begin engine tests and sat close enough to the SN9 explosion to catch some debris hits, might have to wait a little longer than planned for its turn to fly. If the government agency in charge of flight safety think that SpaceX has been casual with safety standards, they have the power to ground the entire line of Starships until SpaceX can assure them that the risks of future landing failures will be fully engineered out.

Some have told me that since Starship is not technically an operational or “production” system yet, but rather a series of test prototypes, that the FAA should not be involving themselves this closely. I don’t know, but it looks like the honeymoon is over between SpaceX and the FAA. Elon said they might change the process to relight all three engines at landing time, just to make sure that at least two of them are ready to land the ship.

I should note that Blue Origin flies rockets up and down like that all the time, landing all the parts safely and without any explosions. Other rocket companies like Virgin Galactic had to deal with the FAA when they crashed things that go to space and then land back on Earth. Of course neither of those companies has yet to influence the launch services market to the point of disrupting it like SpaceX has, or made a profit, or even flown to orbit…yet. Up ’till now they’ve just spent lots of the money of the respective billionaires who sponsor them.

SpaceX on the other hand, right after crashing SN9, launched sixty more Starlink satellites on a Falcon 9. Sixty more are planned for next week. These satellites disrupt yet another industry and will likely soon dominate it. We yawn about recent Falcon 9 launches and landings, but SpaceX crashed more than a handful of those too. Someday we will yawn about successful and profitable Starship flights too.


In the mean time, NASA has delayed the down-select decision for contractors to build the lunar landers for their “boots on the moon” project, Artemis. Right after that, Congress wrote a letter to President Biden to have NASA move forward as planned and not delay the down-select. Read anything into that that you like, but some wonder whether they object to the proposed delay for the sake of Lunar exploration or cost-cutting, or were against a delay to their constituent state space industries getting selected to move forward.

The Biden administration has publicly declared its support for both the Space Force and for the Artemis program…after some initial “uncertain” answers from Biden’s Press Secretary, Jen Psaki. She had apparently not yet been briefed on policy regarding those issues by the respective teams in the Biden administration. In spite of vocal support, timelines still don’t seem to be a topic for discussion by Biden or his team, which with space related programs can be a great way to say no without saying no. I’m thinking that the government will put a few other things behind them first, such as the impeachment trial and Covid response.

Great recovery, Jen.

ULA Is Still in the Game

You may have heard that back in August SpaceX and United Launch Alliance beat out Blue Origin and Northrup Grumman for the next round of Space Force launch contracts. As a result of this, the United States Space Force “completed” their rocket development partnerships with Blue Origin and Northrup Grumman last month. Those companies have been awarded half of the original contract amounts as agreed, but those companies have probably been set back in their rocket development plans as a result.

Jeff Bezos, who owns Blue Origin, has stepped down as CEO of Amazon to play a lesser role there. He said he had other things to do…no doubt Blue Origin is key among them. If you listen to Jeff’s own words, Blue Origin is the most important thing that he does. He and changed the world with Amazon and became the richest man in the world. Elon holds the title of richest person right now, not because of SpaceX but because of Tesla. However, I think that the Amazon stock value that comprises most of the Bezos fortune is a bit more solid than Tesla’s. I made a lot of money on Tesla stock myself, but if I’d put that same $1,000 into into Amazon instead, and sooner, then I’d be rich and would still own the stock. Bezos did great things with Amazon, but he has has not retired…not by a long shot. If you pay attention to the progress of Blue Origin, you have to conclude that Jeff Bezos hasn’t even started taking space seriously yet…he’s just stood off and thrown fist-fulls of dollars at it. If he starts appling the same aggressive innovation approach to Blue Origin that he’s used at Amazon over the years, then all of the Old Space players will soon get crushed. There will be no room in the launch services market for anyone else, anywhere, with the likes of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk fighting over it.

~ by Bill Housley on February 6, 2021.

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