It turns out SpaceX reportedly ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before it launched its Starship SN8 prototype on December 9, 2020, according to confidential documents obtained by The Verge.
Blasting off from the company's Boca Chica site in Texas, the Starship vehicle flew up for under seven minutes during its test flight before performing an aerial flip, and ultimately exploding into a glorious blaze of flames upon landing back on Earth.
Things clearly weren't quite up to snuff with the December landing, but the prototype test flight marked a substantial step forward on the road to sending humans safely to Mars.
That said, as The Verge's report discovered, SpaceX received a number of warnings from the FAA just minutes ahead of that launch, citing a violation of the company's launch license.
The company seemingly chose to ignore those warnings as the launch team "assumed that the inspector did not have the latest information," per the documents. SpaceX allegedly complained that the FAA's software wasn't up to par, and that the data the Administration used to issue the warnings was "overly conservative."
"Although the report states that all SpaceX parties believed that such risk was sufficiently low to comply with regulatory criteria, SpaceX used analytical methods that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window," read a letter by the FAA’s space division chief Wayne Monteith to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell.
It doesn't look like the issue has played too huge a role in holding back SpaceX, given its recent $2.9 billion contract with NASA to send the next astronauts to the Moon in 2024, beating Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin to the task.
Moreover, since December, SpaceX has launched other Starship prototypes, seemingly without much objection from the FAA.
FAA publishes SN9 is scrubbed.— Chris B - NSF (@NASASpaceflight) January 28, 2021
Kinda baffling to say the least why the FAA would be borking on a test flight that SpaceX has already conducted with SN8 (to a higher altitude).
SpaceX has cleared the pad anyway. https://t.co/ASA55P0w9B
Despite these latest green lights, it's clear to sense the animosity between SpaceX and the FAA, as Elon Musk took to Twitter in January to voice his frustrations about the FAA, stating the space industry has a "fundamentally broken regulatory system."
Ultimately, the biggest bone the FAA had to pick with SpaceX during the December launch was the fact that the company had used analytical methods "that appeared to be hastily developed to meet a launch window," read the confidential documents.
According to the documents, the worry was that extreme weather conditions could worsen the collateral damage of an explosion — putting the lives of people living and working nearby in danger.
Luckily, even though the SN8 did explode, no person and no building was damaged.
With all that being said, it looks like SpaceX has since agreed to check its safety practices even more closely, and listen to the FAA's warnings to pause or cancel a launch.