Rocketlab's just-posted Rocket Lab Experiences Anomaly During Launch begins:

Auckland, New Zealand. May 16, 2021: Following a successful lift-off, first stage burn, and stage separation, Rocket Lab experienced an anomaly during its 20th Electron mission ‘Running Out Of Toes.’

The issue occurred following second stage ignition during the flight on May 15, 2021 UTC, resulting in the loss of the mission. The launch vehicle’s second stage remained within the predicted launch corridor and caused no harm to the public, Rocket Lab’s launch or recovery crews, or the launch site. Electron’s first stage safely completed a successful splashdown under parachute and Rocket Lab’s recovery team is working to retrieve the stage from the ocean as planned.

Rocket Lab is working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to investigate the anomaly and identify the root cause to correct the issue for future missions.

The launch was in New Zealand so I'm not sure this is the US' FAA or New Zealand's.

Question: Why is Rocketlab working with a Federal Aviation Administration to investigate an early 2nd stage engine shutdown? Does this FAA deal with spacecraft above the Karman line? (Was it above the Karman line?) The first stage parachuted to Earth and that's certainly in their wheelhouse, but why is this event something that this FAA would participate in an investigation of?

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    $\begingroup$ Please explain: "FAA that turns off cameras on Falcon 9's". Why would the FAA control cameras on SpaceX rockets? I tried to Google it, but mostly just came up with this question. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2021 at 22:40
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    $\begingroup$ @WaterMolecule Good catch! I've confused the FAA with NOAA, I'll remove that bit. See Has SpaceX applied for license to broadcast video from space? and answers therein. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented May 18, 2021 at 19:04

2 Answers 2


The Federal Aviation Administration is the United States' Federal Government organization responsible for every US vehicle that flies. The Electron flies, and it is launched by a US company, hence, it falls under the jurisdiction of the FAA, more precisely under the jurisdiction of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

This is based on Articles VI and VII of the Outer Space Treaty which base the liability for any damage caused by a rocket launch on the governments of the launch provider's home country and the country from where the rocket was launched. Hence, since Rocket Lab is a US company, the US government is liable for any damage caused by a Rocket Lab launch, and thus it has a vested interest in licensing these launches. Note that due to the failure, the second stage reentered uncontrolled, and thus could potentially have damaged property or injured people.

For launching from New Zealand, you would also need a NZ license (or rather multiple of them, a launch license, a payload license, and a facility license). However, the New Zealand Space Agency also accepts certain foreign licenses which meet or exceed NZ safety standards, including FAA licenses. Therefore, it is likely that this launch would have been solely licensed by the FAA. (Why go through the trouble of applying for two licenses if you can do it with one?)

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    $\begingroup$ It must end somewhere, would a Rocketlab third kick stage or a Photon also require consultation with the FAA? Actually, I've now gone ahead and asked Did the FAA license the Ingenuity helicopter to fly on Mars? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 8:00
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is not correct. The FAA is not responsible for vehicles launched at the behest of the US government (e.g., NASA, Department of Defense), and it is not responsible for vehicle operations once the vehicles are on orbit and remain on orbit. It is responsible for the subsequent reentry of vehicles subject to its jurisdiction into the Earth's atmosphere, if that reentry happens. $\endgroup$ Commented May 17, 2021 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ I've added a bounty, you are of course eligible for it by modifying this answer. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented May 19, 2021 at 0:13
  • $\begingroup$ @David Hammen, your statement that the FAA jurisdiction is "limited to the Earth's atmosphere" contradicts one of the the FAA/AST missions statement: "Regulate the U.S. commercial space transportation industry, to ensure compliance with international obligations of the United States...". It is correct that non-commercial (US) space activities are outside of the FAA responsibility. So "responsible for every US vehicle that flies" in Jorg's answer is indeed wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Ng Ph
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 15:40

The question is two-pronged: Why is the US government involved? Why is the FAA in particular?

If we dissect Art. VII (covering Liability) of the Outer Space Treaty, any of the 3 conditions below makes a State internationally liable:

(a) the State performs the launch,

(b) the State procures the launch,

(c) the State hosts the launch on its territory,

For me, none of the above apply to the US for this particular launch (assuming there is no US government's satellite in the payload, so that (b) does not apply).

However, we have also Art. VI (covering Responsibility). Below is the relevant part:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-­governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

Rocket Lab being a US company, its activities engage the responsibility of the US and would have required its prior authorization, irrespectively of the place of launch (to be double-checked!).

For the second question, we should note that it is the FAA/AST that is designated by the US government to enact such responsibility (supervision and authorization), as can be read from the FAA/AST statement of missions

Commercial Space Transportation was established to: Regulate the U.S. commercial space transportation industry, to ensure compliance with international obligations of the United States, and ....

Therefore the FAA's responsibility is not limited to only "things that fly" (in, or crosses, the atmosphere).

In passing, note the subtlety of differentiating between "Liability" and "Responsibility" in the Treaty's legal construct. I will let the lawyers in Space SE deal with this!


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