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SpaceX Reportedly Violated FAA Launch License in December Fireball Test

By Lou Whiteman - Jan 30, 2021 at 8:42AM

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The investigation could delay future SpaceX tests.

Elon Musk's SpaceX reportedly violated the terms of its license during an ill-fated test launch of its Starship spacecraft, potentially delaying the company's efforts to continue testing the massive spaceship that Musk eventually hopes to use on a mission to Mars.

The Starship in a December launch achieved its goal of a vertical eight mile climb, but blew up in a spectacular fireball on its return to Earth. The Verge reported Friday night that the incident has attracted the attention of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is now investigating both the explosion and a potential license violation.

View of a SpaceX rocket lifting off from the launch pad.

A SpaceX launch. Image source: Kim Shiflett, NASA.

The FAA in a statement to The Verge said it "will continue to work with SpaceX to evaluate additional information provided by the company as part of its application to modify its launch license," but declined to provide any details on the scope of its investigation or what part of the test flight ran afoul of its permitting.

SpaceX declined comment. However, the investigation might explain a Jan. 28 Musk tweet that was critical of the FAA. Replying to a tweet announcing that a follow-up SpaceX test flight scheduled for Thursday had been scrubbed, Musk said, "unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure."

Musk said that under FAA rules, "humanity will never get to Mars."

As The Verge notes, Musk and SpaceX have a history of ruffling feathers with government authorities. SpaceX has twice sued the U.S. Air Force, including a successful effort for the right to compete to launch Pentagon satellites. The CEO also famously told 60 Minutes, "I do not respect the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission]."

This week, Musk's Tesla (TSLA 1.86%) announced a modified version of its Model S sedan that included a yoke-style steering wheel. Fox News reported Friday that the modification apparently took regulators with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration off guard, with NHTSA saying in a statement it "cannot determine if the steering wheel meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards."

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