For Flight #7 slated for 02-Feb-2021, Wikipedia's SpaceX Starship; Testing Program says:

SpaceX attempted to fly SN9 on 28 and 29 of January 2021, but failed to receive permission from the FAA. (164, 165)

Q: Why do Space X starship launches need permission from the US Federal Aviation Administration?

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    $\begingroup$ I would be very concerned if they didn't need to coordinate with the FAA. Seems like it would just be a matter of time before a collision with a plane or other aircraft occurred. $\endgroup$
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 5:43
  • $\begingroup$ @PCLuddite - I'd expect a launch area to already be a no-fly zone. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 14:58
  • $\begingroup$ @Davor not sure how no-fly zones actually work, but I'm sure it involves coordination with the feds, either the FAA or the military or other appropriate dept. And I would think that at least involves notifying the FAA so that pilots actually know it's a no fly zone. (although the federal government doesn't exactly have a reputation for common sense). $\endgroup$
    – PC Luddite
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 16:36
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    $\begingroup$ See "Temporary Flight Restriction" listed in an answer below. It is a no-fly zone, but only for a set period of time around the launch window. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 20:51
  • $\begingroup$ well .... it would be a bit strange to ask permission from the UK CAA don't you think? $\endgroup$
    – UKMonkey
    Commented Feb 5, 2021 at 11:26

3 Answers 3


Because it's required by law (51 USC Ch. 509: Commercial Space Launch Activities) and by FAA regulations (14 CFR Chapter III - Commercial Space Launch Activities, Federal Aviation Administration, Department of Transportation) that implement those laws.

Even amateur rockets are subject to some FAA regulations. A rocket going up 10 km is subject to quite a few FAA regulations. Even though SN9 is not going into space (not even close), it has far too much thrust to qualify it as an amateur rocket. The launch of SpaceX's SN9 is categorized as a commercial space launch, and FAA approval is required for that.

My answer does not address the issue of "why?" Shortly after aviation started more than a century ago, incidents and even fatalities became ever more frequent occurrences. The US government passed multiple laws, starting with the Air Mail Act of 1925 to attempt to make air travel safer, more common, and more lucrative. And it has worked. US commercial aviation makes about 5670 flights per day, and incidents are extremely rare.

The mindset of the modern Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) goes a bit against the mindset of rocketry. Suppose that one out of every thousand commercial airplane flights results in death to all. Given the current flight rate, that would mean six fatal commercial airplane crashes per day in the US alone. Hardly anybody would fly in a commercial airliner were that the case. Modern aviation is extremely safe. It is arguably the safest mode of transportation. Suppose even one out of every million commercial flights resulted in multiple fatalities. That would given the modern FAA qualms. With over two million commercial airline flights per year in the US alone, that would mean two major incidents per year, in the US alone.

An incident rate of one out of every thousand rocket launches remains a mere pipe dream. That means that the mentality of the modern FAA, where a one out of a million incident rate would be a bad sign, goes a bit against the grain of current rocket launch statistics. Nonetheless, the US Congress has mandated that the Department of Transportation (and hence the FAA) foster and regulate the commercial space industry.

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    $\begingroup$ @nexus_2006 The FAA is where the buck stops, when an aircraft pilot who was doing nothing illegal didn't realize somebody was playing with rockets that day and found out when the plane was "accidentally" shot down. There is some back story to this situation. SpaceX failed to comply with the terms of the FAA approval for a previous launch (not to mention Musk's repeated public anti-regulation statements) so the FAA wasn't going to cut them any slack this time around. $\endgroup$
    – alephzero
    Commented Feb 2, 2021 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ @JonathanReez Multiple news outlets are reporting that an FAA spokesperson said "Prior to the Starship SN8 test launch in December, SpaceX sought a waiver to exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations. After the FAA denied the request, SpaceX proceeded with the flight. The FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident after the flight and all testing that could affect public safety at the Boca Chica, Texas, launch site was suspended until the investigation was completed." $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 2, 2021 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble The statement did not say what SpaceX did wrong. There's a lot of online speculation: The launch itself, the bellyflop, and lots of other things. I truly doubt it was the launch itself for which the FAA withdrew a license; if that was the case the FAA would be all over SpaceX's case. That would involve jail time, massive fines, and other huge penalties. So possibly the bellyflop, or possibly something else that the FAA did not like. That the matter was cleared up in less than a week suggests it was not an overly huge issue. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 2, 2021 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble The thing that bugs me most is the apparent arrogance on the side of SpaceX. (Musk's tweets, for example.) The "we're so good we can't fail" arrogance on the part of some in NASA played a big role in causing the Challenger and Columbia disasters. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 2, 2021 at 22:44
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    $\begingroup$ @JonathanReez This is not an unelected bureaucrat acting on a whimsy. This is the FAA acting according to the "take care" clause of the Constitution. Congress has mandated the FAA regarding licensing of launch operators and has mandated the FAA to ensure safety. When a launch operator explicitly violates a launch constraint, the FAA is going to take a harder look. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 18:42

To expand a bit on David Hammen's answer, the reasons for the regulations requiring FAA permits for rocket launches are related to public safety (or sometimes the egos of bureaucrats, but mostly public safety.) There are a couple of particular areas that these fall under:

Range Safety

Obviously, rockets carry a lot of fuel and often very toxic materials (e.g. hydrazine or sometimes even radioactive material for radioisotope thermoelectric generators.) Rocket launches don't always go as planned, which sometimes leads to large explosions and/or highly toxic stuff landing downrange (or just exploding on the launch site.) Thus, making sure that the risk of such an incident harming people and property is minimized is important. The FAA is the U.S. agency in charge of safety for stuff that flies, so this falls under their purview.

Aviation Safety

Spacecraft tend not to be the only vehicles flying around in the atmosphere. In general, they must share the atmosphere with aircraft, even if only very briefly. When you're flying around in your Cessna (or your Boeing, for that matter,) it's not exactly easy to see and avoid something that suddenly lights up underneath you and accelerates quickly to supersonic speeds straight up in your general direction. Thus, just as aircraft have regulations to prevent them from flying into each other, so, too, do spacecraft have regulations to prevent them from flying into aircraft.

In particular, when a rocket launch is scheduled, a Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) will be issued telling aircraft pilots to stay away from a set boundary of airspace through which the rocket is expected to transit the atmosphere for a set period of time. A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) will be issued to advise pilots of the TFR. Checking the current NOTAMs is part of normal preflight procedures for pilots, so this ensures that they'll be aware of the launch (assuming they actually conduct a proper preflight briefing.)

Of course, the FAA is the agency in charge of maintaining aviation safety, so this concern also falls under their area of regulatory authority (and they are the ones who issue the TFRs and NOTAMs.)

In this case, this part of the launch licensure requirement is actually useful to the organization launching the rocket. By getting a temporary flight restriction put in place around the launch site for the desired timeframe, they can ensure that some random guy buzzing around in his 172 isn't going to stray too close to launch site during the launch window. Launch windows are often very short (sometimes even instantaneous,) which means a launch might have to be scrubbed entirely if an airplane wondered too close to the launch site at the wrong time. Having a TFR in effect means that both pilots and air traffic controllers will be aware of the launch in advance and will plan for air traffic to avoid the area during the active time of the TFR, including the launch window.

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    $\begingroup$ Re not being easy to see, my hang-gliding instructor had a war story about that. Of course you don't cross airspace if you can possibly avoid it, but back in the 80s things were a bit looser, and there was an unwritten rule that if you had to cross an airfield then you went across the middle, perpendicular to the runways. All the traffic goes up and down at either end, and in the middle is relatively safe. Fine in theory, until he crossed a military airfield just as a Tornado was taking off. It lifted off, immediately stood on its tail, and went up vertically past him. Change of underwear! $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 11:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Graham Wow, yikes. For what it's worth, at least here in the U.S., that's still the normal way to cross an airfield in uncontrolled airspace when flying VFR. Military bases are generally controlled here, though. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 15:21
  • $\begingroup$ An RTG contains radioactive material (usually Pu238), which is not the same thing as nuclear fuel (usually U235) or nuclear weapons material (usually Pu239). $\endgroup$
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 20:02
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DevSolar It's certainly not weapons-grade material, but it's still a nuclear fuel. Regardless, the point was that it's hazardous because of the radioactivity, so I'll just change it to say "radioactive material." $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 20:09
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @reirab "Nuclear fuel" commonly refers to fissile material that can sustain a chain reaction. RTGs, do not contain those; their energy comes from the natural decay of the material. $\endgroup$
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 4, 2021 at 8:47

Everything that goes above FL 180, about 18'000 feet needs a flight plan, which has to be filed with the FAA that can approve or not

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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble For the most part, yes. Things are a little trickier with the military, though, since they have their own areas of restricted/prohibited airspace where they can do more or less what they want regardless of what the FAA has to say about it. In general, though, unless they have a good reason not to (e.g. secrecy,) they do try to play nice with the FAA to keep the skies safe for both their pilots and civilian ones. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 2, 2021 at 23:00
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ In general, though, space launches will get their own TFR (Temporary Flight Restriction) rather than a normal FAA IFR flight plan. NOTAMs (NOTices to AirMen) will be issued for the TFRs. For the permanent restricted/prohibited military airspace, it will be charted on civilian aviation charts and contacts are listed in the chart supplement for civilian pilots to coordinate with the military to make sure we stay out of each other's way. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Commented Feb 2, 2021 at 23:01
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble no, the military is not subject to the FAA. Neither AFAIK is NASA. But as good neighbours they do tend to notify the FAA of their operations unless those operations are secret $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ @jwenting so this answer is wrong? $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 3, 2021 at 13:33
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    $\begingroup$ @reirab correct. SpaceX thought they were in compliance, the FAA thought otherwise is my understanding. Of course without knowing the internal thoughts (rather than official press releases) of each party it's impossible to be certain, but that's all we have to go on so let's go on it. And yes, there was a TFR and there was an exclusion zone enforced by the local Sheriff's department as well as SpaceX's own security teams. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Commented Feb 6, 2021 at 7:56

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