Elon Musk’s SpaceX ignored at least TWO last-minute warnings from authorities that its Starship launch in December might not be safe – and went ahead with it anyway, leaked documents reveal

  • FAA had last minute concerns over the launch of SN8 on December 9 last year
  • It issued warnings to SpaceX based on its launch-weather modelling software
  • But SpaceX ignored the warnings and ploughed ahead with the launch anyway
  • SpaceX is expected to launch its next Starship prototype, SN16, later this month

Elon Musk’s aerospace company SpaceX ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that launch of its SN8 rocket last December might not be safe, leaked documents show. 

Warnings from the FAA were based on its launch-weather modelling software, according to the documents, which were seen by the Verge. 

If the rocket had exploded, its shockwave could be strengthened by weather conditions like wind speed and endanger nearby homes, the models suggested.  

But SpaceX ignored the warnings because it said the FAA’s software could be interfered with to provide ‘better or worse results for an identical scenario’. 

SpaceX went ahead with the launch, violating its launch license from the FAA in the process. SN8 ended up launching successfully but crash-landing in a ball of flames.  

Image shows SpaceX’s Starship SN8 rocket prototype taking off at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility during an attempted high-altitude launch test on December 9, 2020

According to the FAA, SpaceX ‘prioritised speed over safety’ with the launch, which took place at its Boca Chica, Texas testing facility at 5:45pm ET (10:45pm GMT) on December 9.

SpaceX’s violation of its launch license was ‘inconsistent with a strong safety culture,’ the FAA’s space division chief Wayne Monteith said in a letter to SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell. 

‘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.’ 

SN8 soared straight up into the air for its first high-altitude flight and over the Gulf of Mexico before performing its in-flight manoeuvres 

SpaceX’s Starship SN8 rocket prototype crashing on landing at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas facility

Monteith also slammed SpaceX for proceeding with the launch based on ‘impressions’ and ‘assumptions’ rather than procedural checks.

The Verge adds: ‘FAA investigators couldn’t determine whether the SN8 license violation was intentional, according to people involved in and briefed on the investigation, speaking on the condition of anonymity.’

SpaceX didn’t end up receiving any penalties from the FAA and went on to launch its next prototype, SN9, in February. 

SN9 itself faced regulatory hurdles from the FAA, leading Musk to grumble that ‘humanity will never go to Mars’ if it were up to the agency. 

SpaceX is yet to reply to MailOnline’s request for comment regarding the report from the Verge on the SN8 launch. 

It’s not known the extent to which Elon Musk (pictured) made the final decisions leading up to the launch of SN8 on December 9

On May 5, SpaceX successfully launched and landed its Starship Serial Number 15 rocket.

It became the only one of its prototypes to survive a high altitude flight test.  

The prototype climbed through the sky until it reached six miles, hovered for a moment and then performed the infamous sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ maneuver by Musk.

‘Starship landing nominal,’ Musk tweeted moments after his pride and joy made a safe and successful landing on the pad.

SN16 is set to launch later in June.

It is currently unclear what role Musk himself played in the decision to launch SN8. The billionaire founder and CEO of the firm is yet to publicly address the issue. 

SpaceX is planning to send humans to Mars using a two-stage spacecraft composed of Starship (the passenger-carrying section) and the Super Heavy rocket booster.

However, the firm has some work to do to finish the construction of the $216 million Starship, previously known as ‘BFR’, at SpaceX’s Texas development site. 

Starship SN8 – short for ‘serial number eight’ – was one of the several prototypes of its Starship rocket to be launched by the company.  

It successfully reached its goal of getting as high as 7.8 miles (41,000 feet), soaring out over the Gulf of Mexico. 

After about five minutes, it flipped sideways as planned and descended in a free-fall back to the southeastern tip of Texas near the Mexican border. 

The sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ manoeuvre by Musk, was designed to mimic the technique Starship will use when returning through Earth’s atmosphere from space – presenting the ‘belly’ as it enters the atmosphere reduces the speed of descent as it approaches the ground.   

The rocket exploded the moment it hit the ground, leaving nothing behind but what remained of the craft’s nose cone, debris and a cloud of smoke.  

SN8 went up 7.8 miles, attempted a ‘belly flop’ in the air, turned back upright then aimed to land safely back at the testing facility in Texas but failed due to coming in too fast and crash landing

Musk, however, deemed the launch a success. He said that the prototype – even though it was destroyed – collected a trove of data that will bring SpaceX one step closer to sending humans to Mars.       

The full-scale, stainless steel prototype stood at 160 feet (50 meters) tall and was 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter. It was the first Starship prototype equipped with a nose cone, body flaps and three engines.

It was shooting for an altitude of up to eight miles (12.5 kilometres), which is almost 100 times higher than previous hops and skimming the stratosphere. 

The sideways flip, dubbed a ‘belly flop’ manoeuvre by Musk, was designed to mimic the technique Starship will use when returning through Earth’s atmosphere. Pictured, SN8

SpaceX’s first super heavy-lift Starship SN8 rocket explodes during a return-landing attempt

‘With a test such as this, success is not measured by completion of specific objectives but rather how much we can learn,’ SpaceX wrote in a statement

The test flight was initially set for December 2, then pushed to December 4 and then to December 7 then it was scheduled again for December 8, which was scrubbed at the last minute, before finally going ahead the next day.

This ‘hop’ was a historic event for SpaceX, as previous prototypes only hit 500 feet in the air – but it also proved the most destructive.  

Upon touching down, however, the craft became engulfed in flames and ruptured, parts scattering. The entire flight lasted just over six minutes and 40 seconds. 

The Starship two-stage-to-orbit heavy lift vehicle has been in development since 2012 and is designed to bring the cost of launch down by being more reusable. 

The high-altitude flight was focused on testing a number of features of the giant spaceship, that could take the first passengers to Mars as early as 2026, according to Musk.

NASA has chosen Elon Musk ‘s SpaceX to build the spacecraft that take the first woman and next man to the moon. SpaceX’s HLS Starship will include the company’s tested Raptor engines, along with pulling inspiration from the Falcon and Dragon vehicles’ designs

The SpaceX CEO previously said there was a ‘fighting chance’ the first Starship flight to Mars could happen as early as 2024. 

This is the same year that NASA will send the first woman and next man to the Moon in 2024, as part of the Artemis mission.

Coincidentally, SpaceX was since awarded a $2.9 billion contract by NASA in April to build the spacecraft for the mission.  

The four spacefaring heroes will be carried to the Moon on the Starship HLS, a lunar lander variant of the Starship spacecraft.  

NASA will land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024 as part of the Artemis mission

Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology. 

NASA has chosen her to personify its path back to the Moon, which will see astronauts return to the lunar surface by 2024 –  including the first woman and the next man.

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. 

Artemis 1 will be the first integrated flight test of NASA’s deep space exploration system: the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and the ground systems at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  

Artemis 1 will be an uncrewed flight that will provide a foundation for human deep space exploration, and demonstrate our commitment and capability to extend human existence to the Moon and beyond. 

During this flight, the spacecraft will launch on the most powerful rocket in the world and fly farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ever flown.

It will travel 280,000 miles (450,600 km) from Earth, thousands of miles beyond the Moon over the course of about a three-week mission. 

Artemis 1, formerly Exploration Mission-1, is the first in a series of increasingly complex missions that will enable human exploration to the Moon and Mars. This graphic explains the various stages of the mission

Orion will stay in space longer than any ship for astronauts has done without docking to a space station and return home faster and hotter than ever before. 

With this first exploration mission, NASA is leading the next steps of human exploration into deep space where astronauts will build and begin testing the systems near the Moon needed for lunar surface missions and exploration to other destinations farther from Earth, including Mars. 

The will take crew on a different trajectory and test Orion’s critical systems with humans aboard.

The SLS rocket will from an initial configuration capable of sending more than 26 metric tons to the Moon, to a final configuration that can send at least 45 metric tons. 

Together, Orion, SLS and the ground systems at Kennedy will be able to meet the most challenging crew and cargo mission needs in deep space.

Eventually NASA seeks to establish a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028 as a result of the Artemis mission.

The space agency hopes this colony will uncover new scientific discoveries, demonstrate new technological advancements and lay the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy. 

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