Updated September 7 at 7:36 p.m. ET
In January, Sara Spangelo tuned into a live-stream in California to witness a rocket launch thousands of miles away, on an island along the Indian coast overlooking the Bay of Bengal. A 144-foot-tall launch vehicle, owned and operated by India, sat on the launchpad. As a voice on the stream counted down, a small tangle of orange flames appeared at the rocket’s base and quickly swelled into an enormous fireball, pushing it skyward. The rocket disappeared into the clouds within seconds as it hurtled toward the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.
This was an exciting moment for Spangelo, the CEO of a young start-up called Swarm Technologies. Swarm had secured a spot on the Indian rocket for its product: a set of four small satellites nicknamed SpaceBees. The SpaceBees are prototypes for Swarm’s ambitious plan to provide internet access to areas without it. When the satellites successfully made it into orbit, Spangelo felt “super relieved and excited,” she says.
Two months later, Spangelo received a curt email. It was from the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. government agency that regulates all satellite launches by American companies, whether they occur on U.S. soil or elsewhere. The FCC, the message said, wouldn’t review any of Swarm’s applications for future satellite launches until officials figured out what had happened with this one. The agency, it turned out, had denied Swarm’s request to launch the SpaceBees last year. Swarm did it anyway.