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The FAA’s Rocket Blockade: A Tale of Bureaucracy and Space

In a world where technology is advancing at the speed of light, it’s ironic that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—the agency responsible for regulating American airspace—is slowing things down. Recently, the FAA has been in the spotlight for delaying SpaceX’s Starship launch and preventing the re-entry of Varda’s research capsule. The reason? A lack of personnel to handle the surge in commercial rocket launches. Let’s take a quick look at this cosmic comedy of errors and bureaucracy.

What is the FAA and its Cosmic Duties?

Wes Anderson-style bureaucrat. / Denis Giffeler

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is a U.S. governmental agency that oversees all aspects of civil aviation, including commercial and private flights. But its responsibilities don’t stop at the stratosphere; they extend into outer space. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Operations is tasked with licensing commercial launch and reentry operations. In 2023 alone, the FAA has licensed a staggering 82 commercial launches. This is a tenfold increase over the last decade, largely driven by SpaceX’s ambitious launch schedule. The agency is clearly struggling to keep up with the pace of innovation, despite its requests for additional funding to hire more personnel.

The Starship Saga

SpaceX’s Starship has been a focal point of the new space race, aiming to make interplanetary travel a reality. However, its journey has been far from smooth. The first Starship flight, launched on April 20, 2023, faced several issues, including the failure of its two stages to separate as planned. This led SpaceX to engage Starship’s self-destruct system, destroying the rocket high above the Gulf of Mexico. The FAA conducted an investigation into the flight and identified 63 corrective actions that SpaceX must take to prevent similar mishaps. Elon Musk announced that SpaceX has completed and documented 57 of the required items, noting that 6 of the 63 items refer to later flights. Despite these corrective actions, the FAA has yet to award a new launch license for Starship’s second flight.

Varda’s Grounded Capsule

Varda Space Industries, a startup specializing in in-space manufacturing, has been waiting for an additional two months to bring its research capsule back to Earth. The FAA and the U.S. Air Force have declined to give Varda the green light to land its spacecraft in a remote part of Utah. According to the FAA, Varda failed to demonstrate compliance with regulatory requirements and did not possess a reentry license when it launched its vehicle. The FAA’s decision is still pending reconsideration, leaving Varda’s mission in a state of limbo.

Parkinson’s Law of Bureaucratic Growth

Parkinson’s Law, first published in 1955 by naval historian C. Northcote Parkinson, posits that the duration of public administration expands to fill its allotted time span, regardless of the amount of work to be done. The law attributes this phenomenon to two main factors: officials wanting subordinates rather than rivals, and officials creating work for each other. In essence, Parkinson’s Law suggests that bureaucracies have an inherent tendency to grow, often without a corresponding increase in efficiency.

Interestingly, Parkinson even presented a mathematical formula to describe this growth:

x = \frac{2k^m + P}{n}

Where \( x \) is the number of new employees to be hired annually, \( k \) is the number of employees who want to be promoted by hiring new employees, \( m \) is the number of working hours per person for the preparation of internal memoranda, \( P \) is the difference between the age at hiring and the age at retirement, and \( n \) is the number of administrative files actually completed.

The FAA’s current predicament seems to be a real-world manifestation of Parkinson’s Law. Despite the surge in commercial space activity, the FAA has not scaled its operations efficiently. Instead, it appears to be mired in its own bureaucratic complexities, leading to delays and inefficiencies. This is particularly concerning given the rapid advancements in space technology and the increasing number of commercial players entering the field. The FAA’s inability to keep pace not only hampers current missions but also casts a shadow over future endeavors in commercial space exploration. Source


As humanity sets its sights on the stars, it’s disheartening to see that we are still entangled in the cobwebs of bureaucracy here on Earth. Companies like SpaceX and Varda are ready to push the boundaries of human achievement, but they find themselves grounded by administrative red tape. It’s a cosmic irony that as we aim to conquer space, we’re still wrestling with age-old terrestrial issues.

So, the next time you look up at the night sky, ponder this: the stars may be the limit, but only if the paperwork down here allows it.