Starship is one Step Closer to Flight

As Tom Petty famously sang, “waiting is the hardest part!” This has surely been the case for Elon Musk and the crews at the SpaceX Starbase near Boca Chica, Texas! As of this year, the company had finished flight tests with the Starship prototypes, built multiple Super Heavy boosters, test-fired the new Raptor 2.0 engines, finished the “Mechazilla” launch tower, and fully stacked the first orbital prototype (SN20 and BN4). They had even finished construction on the new Starship factory at Boca Chica, where Musk’s proposed fleet of reusable spacecraft will subsequently be produced.

Alas, that’s when an interminable delay set in! It all began when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began its environmental review of the Starbase in anticipation of orbital flight testing. This review was originally intended to wrap up in February but was extended until early June. However, on Monday, June 13th, the review officially concluded and declared that the Starbase was good to go for launch testing. With this major hurdle all but cleared, the company is just about ready to conduct its historic orbital flight test and validate the Starship and Super Heavy for commercial use.

According to the FAA’s Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA), the FAA review revealed no significant environmental concerns and will allow SpaceX to proceed with various aspects of its testing. These include tank tests, pre-flight operations, further construction, and suborbital launches, all of which SpaceX has already been cleared for, except for booster flight tests (which must obtain under a separate license). As for orbital testing, the PEA concluded that under local and federal ordinances, SpaceX meets the legal requirements (for the most part).

It also recommended 75 actions SpaceX will need to take before orbital flights, and further Starbase construction can proceed. A summary of the review’s conclusions and actions include:

  • Air Emissions: SpaceX will need to limit its emissions per the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). However, the review states that “[t]ypical ground?processing operations of the size proposed at the Vertical Launch Area (VLA)… are not expected to produce emissions above the potential… threshold levels.”
  • Endangered Species Act: Per the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the FAA consulted with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). They concluded that SpaceX’s activities are not likely to adversely affect the region’s endangered species or critical habitats.
  • Fishery Conservation: Per the Magnuson?Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the FAA consulted with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) on the potential dangers of SpaceX’s operations to Essential Fish Habitats (EFHs) in the region. Again, they concluded that Starship testing posed no serious hazards.
  • Coastal Zone Management: The Coastal Zone Management Act obligates the FAA and SpaceX to consider how their operations will affect the coastal zone. The PEA concludes that moving forward, SpaceX will be required to ensure all of its actions are compliant with state law, as overseen by the TCMP.
  • National Historic Preservation: As part of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the FAA determined that Starship testing would adversely affect historic properties. The FAA and SpaceX, along with local and federal heritage offices, agreed to work together to address these possible adverse effects.
  • Clean Water Act: SpaceX‚Äôs proposal includes filling wetlands, which requires several additional state and federal permits before it can expand construction or conduct further testing.
  • National Wildlife: Per the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act (NWRSA), SpaceX will be responsible for any debris its operations create on lands managed under the Act. In this event, they will be required to obtain a Special Use Permit from the USFWS (on an emergency basis) for clean-up activities.
The fully-stacked Starship and Superheavy standing behind the “Mechazilla” tower at Boca Chica, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

News of the review was met favorably over at SpaceX, which tweeted: “One step closer to the first orbital flight test of Starship.” While this review does not automatically mean that SpaceX will be licensed to launch-test the immense rocket, this sentiment was certainly correct. While the PEA is hardly a green light for orbital launch tests, it does indicate a path forward for SpaceX and its operations in south Texas. This must be a welcome relief to Musk, given his frustrations and struggles with the FAA and state authorities in recent years.

These include complaints by residents who cited that the rocket testing has resulted in intolerable noise levels, road closures, and how failed flights resulted in flying debris and shattered windows. Musk’s attempts to buy up the surrounding properties have so far failed to resolve the issue and resulted in backlash from the locals. The added issues he’s had with the FAA concerning the Spaceport’s impact on flight space, local fisheries, water, and the coastal environment have made things more frustrating for Musk, who is always eager to push ahead with optimistic timelines.

Despite the delays these struggles have put in his schedule, Musk is now closer than ever to sending a fully-stacked Starship and Super Heavy prototype to space. Standing 120 meters (394 feet) tall, weighing 5000 tons (10 million lbs), and with the ability to launch payloads of more than 100 tons (220,000 lbs) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the Starship and Super Heavy is the largest and most powerful launch system ever built – even more powerful than the Saturn V rockets that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon!

This launch system is vital to Musk’s long-term vision of sending humans to space, conducting regular missions to the Moon, and establishing the first human city on Mars. It was for this very reason that Musk founded SpaceX in 2001, which was to jump-start the crewed exploration and settlement of the Red Planet. Last year, NASA selected SpaceX to build a Human Landing System (HLS) to deliver astronauts to the lunar surface no earlier than 2025. The SpaceX concept is a modified version of their heavy spacecraft known as the Starship HLS (or Lunar Starship).

Illustration of SpaceX Starship human lander design that will carry the first NASA astronauts to the surface of the Moon under the Artemis program. Credits: SpaceX

As part of the Artemis Program, this mission will return astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. Beyond that, Musk also hopes to use the Starship to send crews and payloads to the lunar surface, which will facilitate NASA and other space agencies in their plans to establish a “sustained program of lunar exploration.” This includes building permanent infrastructure on and in orbit around the Moon to allow for long-duration missions and eventual crewed missions to Mars.

While there are more hurdles to clear before any of that can happen, this latest decision puts SpaceX on track for its long-awaited orbital flight, the final validation of the Starship launch system, and a new era of commercial spaceflight!