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FAA defends SpaceX in front of Congress despite unauthorized Starship launch



There was a congressional hearing on Wednesday about safety in spaceflight that, curiously, didn't include the largest launch provider in the world, SpaceX. During the hearing, the committee chairman, Peter DeFazio (D-OR) criticized SpaceX's behavior in the flight-test program of its prototype Starship, resulting in a (surprising, to some, probably including the chairman) defense of the company by the head of the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, Wayne Montieth. The surprise arose because Montieth had reportedly internally criticized SpaceX over its seeming to ignore a warning by his office to not launch in December, in a flight that had resulted in an explosion on landing (as previous attempts had).


It was fortunate for SpaceX that he did so, because they clearly had been deliberately not invited, and were not present to defend themselves. Bizarrely, Virgin Galactic was invited, though it flies very rarely, and doesn't even go to orbit.


There are a couple back stories here. An ever-present one is that major aerospace players like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are being seriously disrupted by SpaceX, and they are not happy about it. They also give major campaign contributions to members of Congress on the key space committees, who in turn are happy to do their bidding in the vendetta.


The other is that Congress doesn't understand a flight-test program. So SpaceX has taken a great deal of criticism in the past year or so by people either ignorant or disingenuous because "their new rocket always blows up," with the implication that they are operating in an unsafe manner.


But the whole point of a test program is to fly things, and break them, to discover how to change the design so it doesn't break for that reason again. This is the exact opposite of NASA's cautious philosophy of analyzing for a long period of time to ensure that everything goes well on a first attempt.


The difference is exemplified by the fact that NASA's Space Launch System is now half a decade behind its original planned debut in 2016, while SpaceX has made landing rockets routine to the point that it is news not when they do so, but when they fail to. Starship has only been in development for three or four years, but because of their willingness to try things and lose test vehicles, they plan to get the vehicle to orbit as early as this summer, and if it does so, it will beat SLS to the goal. So despite its critics, and being spurned at Congressional hearings to which it should rightly be invited, the company may have the last laugh.

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