There aren’t many things Americans agree on, but one remaining point of unanimity is that we don’t like aviation disasters.
Two weeks ago, NASA held its annual Day of Remembrance, honoring those who lost their lives in the pursuit of man’s exploration of space. This year’s ceremony marked in particular the 1986 loss of Challenger and its valiant crew of seven astronauts.
Thirty-five years later, the day has become a point of reflection for the country to remember the extraordinary sacrifice expended by brave citizens in the advancement of discovery.
From the ashes of that disaster came a culture change in NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that prioritized safety and fostered an era of ambitious but responsible space travel. Even with those lessons learned, the safety culture at NASA eroded over the years, leading to the loss of Columbia and its crew of seven in 2003.
It was a devastating reminder of what can happen when schedule pressure and political expediency cause even the most brilliant people to become complacent about safety.
Just one day after that hallowed anniversary, space fans watched as SpaceX’s prototype Starship exploded during a test flight off the Texas coast. This followed a delay of several days in which Elon Musk publicly excoriated the FAA for grounding SpaceX through what he called its “fundamentally broken regulatory structure.”
What Mr. Musk didn’t say was that he had launched Starship 8 in December (during the Trump administration) despite the FAA’s denial of a launch permit for lack of an approved safety plan. That vehicle also exploded at the end of its flight.
It was up to the FAA to air the full truth about the situation: they revealed that SpaceX had conducted its first test launch without securing a waiver “to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations.” The agency properly responded by temporarily grounding Starship flight testing until it could complete a thorough investigation.
The FAA’s decision was met with misguided criticism at regulators for slowing down SpaceX, arguing that in doing so, it ceded ground to the People’s Republic of China, which would somehow gain a massive advantage in rocket development over the United States because of the investigation.
Some have even speculated that the Biden administration is executing a political hit job against the vibrant and inclusive commercial space industry policies that bloomed under then-President Trump.
These criticisms of the FAA’s decision are flat out wrong.
Yes, SpaceX and Elon Musk have brought incredible innovation to the space industry; however, that doesn’t mean the company is above the law. Public safety should always come before expediency, no matter who is at the helm of each launch.
Mr. Musk also just announced he wants to have an all-civilian launch, perhaps the most dangerous mission in space history, relatively soon. One lesson NASA learned the hard way — too many times — is that spaceflight is never routine. The FAA is right to pump the brakes on SpaceX before things get out of hand.
As noted by even the critics, SpaceX is just one of many companies making progress in the American commercial space market, from the United Launch Alliance to Blue Origin to Sierra Nevada and everyone else in between.
As for the SpaceX launch delay being retribution from the Biden administration, again, this is utter nonsense. Mr. Musk has said that he’s “super fired up” about the Biden administration. We must remember that it was the Obama White House that started NASA’s Commercial Crew program and funded development of SpaceX’s Falcon and Dragon.
At the end of the day, SpaceX got ahead of itself and didn’t adequately protect the public from safety and national security risks. The government took proper precautions and put a brief hold on things until it could settle some questions.
This pause isn’t going to cede Mars to the Chinese nor mark the beginning of a Biden crackdown on commercial space. What it might do is prevent another day on the calendar where the brave sacrifices of lost pioneers — or the uninformed risks taken by paying passengers — need to be remembered by our nation.
I can think of no better way to honor the legacy of the crews of Apollo 1, Challenger and Columbia.
• Jonathan H. Ward is a freelance writer on space exploration and is the co-author of “Bringing Columbia Home: The Untold Story of a Lost Space Shuttle and Her Crew.”
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