Elon Musk lashes out as stray helicopter blocks planned SpaceX launch

Musk calls the zone around space launches that other aircraft cannot enter ‘unreasonably gigantic’

Vishwam Sankaran
Wednesday 30 June 2021 06:26 BST
<p>Elon Musk, founder and chief engineer of SpaceX, speaks at the 2020 Satellite Conference and Exhibition in March 2020</p>

Elon Musk, founder and chief engineer of SpaceX, speaks at the 2020 Satellite Conference and Exhibition in March 2020

SpaceX chief Elon Musk has hit out at US airspace regulations after his company was forced to reschedule a rocket launch due to an unauthorised aircraft entering the so-called “keep out zone”.

With SpaceX just seconds away from launching 88 different satellites on its new Transporter-2 cosmic ride share mission, the countdown was halted due to a stray helicopter coming into range of the launch site.

The incident, which will now delay the mission by at least a day, drew the ire of tech billionaire Musk on Twitter. “Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the ‘keep out zone’, which is unreasonably gigantic,” Musk tweeted after the launch was halted.

“There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilisation without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken,” he said.

According to local TV news reports, the aircraft was a private helicopter that entered the restricted area in the final 11 seconds before launch. A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) spokesperson told US media that the government body is investigating the incident.

While the company’s launches have been called off in the past due to circumstances like bad weather, Tuesday’s incident could be the first due to an air traffic disturbance.

Musk had previously criticised the FAA in January after a starship test was delayed.

“Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” the SpaceX chief had similarly tweeted then.

With the company launching rockets at a brisk space this year – an average of nearly once every nine days – Musk said the FAA’s air traffic rules are meant only for a “handful of expendable launches” per year from a few government facilities.

“Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars,” he said.

While Musk publicly criticises regulators, he had also said in April that he agreed with them “99.9 per cent of the time.”

“On rare occasions, we disagree. This is almost always due to new technologies that past regulations didn’t anticipate,” the SpaceX chief noted.

In a recent Congressional hearing, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, including representative Peter DeFazio, expressed concerns over increasing air traffic as a result of the growing number of spaceflight missions in US air space.

“I am not in favour of telling people in America who are travelling for pleasure or for work or whatever reason on a commercial airplane that their flights are delayed by an hour and a half because some billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness. I want to see that does not happen,” Mr DeFazio said.

FAA associate administrator Wayne Monteith, who spoke at the hearing, said the first operational tests of Space Data Integrator – a system designed to support integration of launches into the national airspace system, limiting the size and duration of airspace restrictions – could address these concerns in a few months.

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