SpaceX was ready to launch its latest prototype of its Starship rocket about six miles into the air on Thursday.
That is, until the Federal Aviation Administration stepped in.
The rocket sat on the launchpad at the company's facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, ready for workers to remotely load propellant into its fuel tanks. Local roads were also closed to make way for any explosions, and the company even posted an announcement about the flight on its website. All that SpaceX needed was approval from the FAA.
But the FAA pulled its airspace closure — a requirement for launch — triggering a public complaint by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk against the regulatory agency.
Around 10:50 a.m. CST, the FAA canceled the closure that was meant to make room for the rocket's launch over the southeastern tip of Texas. About an hour later, the agency issued an advisory that the flight attempt was officially scrubbed.
Musk was none too pleased.
"Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure," he said on Twitter Thursday afternoon. "Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars." (The agency recently streamlined its rocket-launch rules, though that policy shift is not set to take effect until later this year.)
Despite the FAA's sudden withdrawal of approval, SpaceX nevertheless began loading the Starship prototype with liquid propellant, as if preparing for launch or a "wet" dress rehearsal. Meanwhile, Musk was "working the phones" trying to get the FAA to approve a launch, according to Ars Technica senior space editor Eric Berger. The agency ultimately did not budge.
"We will continue working with SpaceX to resolve outstanding safety issues before we approve the next test flight," an FAA spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Insider.
It's unclear what those safety issues were, but Washington Post space reporter Christian Davenport said that the FAA had confirmed the issues were related to the Starship vehicle. Irene Klotz, the space editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology, hinted that a procedural lapse on SpaceX's part was possibly to blame.
"From what I've been told, required data for FAA safety assessment of @SpaceX 10km SN9 flight from Boca Chica was not fully submitted by compliance personnel," Klotz tweeted Thursday afternoon.
Once the rocket was filled with propellant, there was still no sign of federal approval. So SpaceX began to unload the fuel. Residents of Boca Chica Village then received a notice that it was safe to return to their homes, according to Mary McConaughey, a longtime homeowner who reports for NASASpaceflight.com — confirming SpaceX would not make the day's launch attempt.
The road to Mars is paved with regulations
The prototype that Musk wanted to launch on Thursday is called Starship serial No. 9, or SN9. Once it gets FAA approval, it's set to rocket about six miles (10 kilometers) into the air. The first and only time SpaceX attempted such an ambitious Starship flight, in December, the rocket exploded as it landed back on Earth. SN9 will attempt to repeat that test and return in one piece.
The tricky maneuver involves shutting off the rocket's three Raptor engines as it reaches the peak of flight, then using its four wing flaps to control a belly-flop free-fall back to Earth, reigniting the engines just in time to turn Starship upright and slow its fall, so that it touches down on a landing pad.
Nailing the non-explosive landing is important. Musk wants the final Starship-Super Heavy launch system to be fully reusable. If that plan succeeds, it may slash the cost of reaching space 1,000-fold, power round-the-world hypersonic travel on Earth, and fly astronauts to the moon.
But he can't do that without cooperating with regulators like the FAA.
"It's clear that industry can and wants to do innovative things, ambitious things, impressive things, a lot faster than have been done in the past," George Nield, a former FAA associate administrator who led its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, told Insider after Musk tweeted about the FAA. "I'm hoping that the government and industry, with help from academia as appropriate, can all work together to figure out how to do that. I think everyone would benefit if that can be the case."
The holdup may be related to the SN8 explosion and a license violation
In a new FAA statement emailed to Insider on Friday, the agency disclosed that it is still evaluating modifications to SpaceX's launch license. That seems to be why it wasn't ready to approve the SN9 flight this week.
"The FAA will continue to work with SpaceX to evaluate additional information provided by the company as part of its application to modify its launch license," an FAA spokesperson said in the statement. "While we recognize the importance of moving quickly to foster growth and innovation in commercial space, the FAA will not compromise its responsibility to protect public safety. We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements."
It's unclear what those modifications are, but based on the new statement, Nield suspects the holdup has something to do with anomalies (like an explosive landing) during the launch of the previous prototype, SN8. SpaceX may not have provided the FAA with a satisfactory report on the incident. It could also be an amendment to the quantity of propellant or the thrust of the engines, he said.
"The simplest possibility in my mind is that they didn't explain what happened on SN8 to the FAA in a formal way and have a 'roger that' back," Nield said.
Separately — and possibly related — SpaceX violated the terms of its launch license during the SN8 test flight, prompting an FAA investigation, journalist Joey Roulette reported for The Verge on Friday. It's unclear what the violation was, or whether it's related to the new modifications that seem to be holding up the SN9 flight.
It's unknown when SN9 will launch, and the FAA didn't provide a timeline for its approval process.
SpaceX has announced that it could launch as early as Monday, but the FAA has not issued an airspace closure notice to make way for a rocket launch in the area. The Cameron County Judge has issued road closures in Boca Chica from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. CST on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Both an airspace closure and road closures are requirements for launch, in addition to the FAA approval.
This story has been updated with new information. It was originally published at 7:03 p.m. ET on January 28, 2021.