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SpaceX Starship: FAA warning could be a huge step backward for Elon Musk

Musk and the FAA have a long history of butting heads.

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SpaceX is building a giant tower for its next Starship launch, which is expected to take place before the end of July. But the company may be running into trouble with one of Elon Musk’s greatest nemeses: The Federal Aviation Administration

CNBC reports that the FAA sent a letter to SpaceX two months ago stating that the launch tower does not have government approval. It’s possible an environmental review from the FAA could even result in the organization recommending that Musk disassemble the tower, which is currently being built in Boca Chica, Texas.

“The company is building the tower at its own risk,” an FAA spokesperson told CNBC. (SpaceX did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.)

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The FAA already conducted at least one environmental review of SpaceX, but that was geared towards the smaller Falcon rockets. The Starship, which is designed to bring up to 100 people into space at a time, is as large as the Statue of Liberty.

SpaceX previously stated that the Starship’s launch tower should be exempt from this type of FAA review because it’s only used for “production, research, and development purposes.” However, the FAA argues that SpaceX’s own description of the tower “indicates otherwise.”

The Starship’s ultimate goal is to bring humanity to Mars, where Musk hopes to establish a colony. However, in April, SpaceX also made a $2.89 billion deal with NASA to use the ship as part of its new Artemis program meant to bring astronauts back to the Moon.

Starship: SpaceX and the FAA’s fraught history

SN10 landing in Texas on March 3, 2021SpaceX

This isn’t the first time SpaceX and the FAA have butted heads.

In June, the government organization revealed that SpaceX had exceeded the number of hours it was allowed to close roads and beaches around Boca Chica, Texas for its launches. The FAA gave Musk’s company permission to block off public areas for up to 300 hours in 2021, but SpaceX soared past that number in under six months.

And back in January, the FAA revealed that SpaceX’s first high-altitude Starship test also violated the company’s test license. The FAA didn’t specify what the issue was, though it’s possible it had to do with the ship’s explosive landing. (The SN8 Starship launched successfully but exploded after a botched descent back to Earth.)

It’s not all bad blood, though. In April, the FAA signed off on SpaceX’s next three Starship test launches, marking a major shift as the organization had previously approved one test at a time. The decision came shortly after the SpaceX-NASA deal, though it’s unclear if there was a direct connection between those two decisions.

Want to find out more about the emergent new space race, and competitors like SpaceX and Blue Origin? Subscribe to MUSK READS+ for exclusive interviews and analysis about spaceflight, electric cars, and more.