SpaceX’s rocket videos are technically against the law. The US government just noticed.
Since 2010, millions of space fans have devoured video shot from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket—but not the US government agency charged with regulating videos shot from space.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) licenses surveillance systems launched into space by Americans. An agency spokesperson explained to Quartz that the agency had “only recently” noticed the immensely popular space videos broadcast by SpaceX for the past eight years. Other companies like United Launch Alliance, Orbital ATK, and Rocket Lab have published similar footage.
The rocket-makers did not seek licenses for their broadcasts because they didn’t consider their vehicles, which operate in orbit for just hours before being abandoned, in the same category as dedicated earth-imaging satellites launched by companies like Planet or DigitalGlobe.
Sometime this year, NOAA decided that SpaceX’s short-lived second-stage rocket required the same licenses as satellite platforms intended to orbit the earth for years, and instructed the company that it needed a license to share imagery from any launches not flown for government clients.
SpaceX submitted its first application to share video during a March 30 launch for satellite-operator Iridium. It only received a provisional license to the mission, and the host of SpaceX’s broadcast announced that NOAA had forbidden broadcasting the latter stages of the flight, which would have shown the gentle ejection of ten satellites from the rocket and into orbit.
Reporters called NOAA, whose spokespeople said they were unaware of any involvement in the launch. Six hours later, the agency said it had changed its interpretation of the law and instructed SpaceX to obtain a license.
Three days later, a NOAA employee reversed course again, claiming that the agency hadn’t chosen to impose the requirement on SpaceX: “It was SpaceX that came to us,” Tahara Dawkins, the head of NOAA’s satellite regulatory office, said at a public meeting. “It wasn’t NOAA that went out to them and said, ‘Hey, stop, you’re going to need a license.’”