March 4, 2024

If the last time it exploded, try again. They did and it exploded again.

On Tuesday, a test flight of SpaceX’s Starship, a giant next-generation spaceship that Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of the private rocket company, dreams of one day sending it to Mars, ended.

That short flight to an altitude of about 6 miles and then back to a landing site seemed to again demonstrate how the mammoth rocket would tip over on its side if it fell back to a landing in a controlled belly flop.

When the prototype fired its engines to bring itself back into vertical alignment, one engine did not seem to ignite properly and Starship landed on the ground at an angle, disintegrating into a ball of fire, leaving a cloud of smoke over the test site, which is in Boca Chica , Tex., Is near Brownsville.

The ending was similar to the last test flight in December, which also ended in an explosion on landing, although the particular cause of the missile not slowing down enough may have been different.

This time, however, SpaceX at least had permission from state regulators.

Last week, SpaceX and the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates rocket launches, appeared to be in an odd regulatory conflict. SpaceX had filled the fuel tanks on this Starship prototype – his ninth – and appeared to be ready to go. But then the missile stayed on the ground when no FAA approval was received.

Mr Musk expressed frustration on Twitter, describing the part of the FAA that oversees SpaceX as “fundamentally broken”.

Mr Musk wrote, “Your rules are for a handful of consumable starts per year in some government facilities. According to these rules, humanity will never get to Mars. “

Late Monday, the FAA approved the Tuesday launch, but then added that the December launch occurred without the agency’s approval. SpaceX had requested a waiver to operate this flight, even though it posed a greater danger to the public than was allowed by law. The FAA denied the request. SpaceX defied the verdict and launched anyway.

The FAA statement showed the agency was dissatisfied with SpaceX’s defiance. Even if Starship landed perfectly, launching without authorization was a violation of the company’s license.

SpaceX has been instructed to investigate and report on this series of events and cease testing that could endanger the public until the company makes changes that satisfied the agency.

In its statement, the FAA stated that SpaceX had complied with safety regulations and given this test flight the green light.

Mr. Musk’s company has become successful in the start-up business and is now one of the most valuable private companies in the world. The Falcon 9 missiles have become a dominant workhorse for sending satellites into orbit. It routinely carries cargo to the International Space Station and has lifted NASA astronauts there twice in 2020. Further trips are planned for this year.

However, many are skeptical of Mr. Musk’s claim that the company is only a few years away from sending a spacecraft to Mars, saying he has repeatedly set schedules for SpaceX that have proven far too optimistic about how quickly they will come about came.

When he released an update on Starship’s development in 2019, he said that an altitude test would take place within months and that orbital flights could occur in early 2020.

Instead, multiple catastrophic failures occurred due to faulty welding. When the fuel tanks stopped bursting, one of the prototypes made a brief successful flight in September. The earlier Starship model, which resembled a spray can with the label removed, soared nearly 500 feet on a single rocket engine before settling at the test site in Texas.

Jared Zambrano-Stout, a former official with the FAA’s commercial space transportation office, said he was stunned when he saw the agency’s statement on SpaceX.

“SpaceX appears to have violated their launch license and there doesn’t appear to be any impact,” he said.

Mr. Zambrano-Stout, who is now director of congressional and regulatory policy at Meeks, Butera and Israel, a Washington law firm, said he was unaware of any other cases where the FAA has denied a startup license or where a company has gone unauthorized started by the FAA

“It’s important for people to understand that it isn’t the FAA’s job to prevent launches,” he said. “They deal with the introduction of licenses.”

The agency’s job is to keep the so-called “innocent public” safe – people not involved with SpaceX or the launch, so that someone just walking around or sitting at home won’t be injured or killed if something goes wrong.

“I think it would be really difficult to come up with an example of where the FAA prevented SpaceX from doing what it wanted,” Zambrano-Stout said before the incident in December.

While SpaceX continues development on Starship, it has already launched three more missiles this year. One mission, Transporter-1, launched Sunday and carried 133 commercial and government spacecraft (as well as 10 of SpaceX’s Starlink Internet satellites). It launched SpaceX’s entry into the business known as ridesharing, where numerous customers pay a fraction of the cost of a trip to orbit.