SpaceX founder and CEO tweeted last month that the company’s Starship-Super Heavy combination could be ready for its first orbital launch attempt from Boca Chica “if all goes well” and “pending regulatory approval.”
With 29 Raptor engines installed in the 230-foot-tall Super Heavy SN4 booster, successful static-fire engine tests conducted on the Starship SN20 prototype and substantial progress made on construction of SpaceX’s new orbital launch pad and launch tower at Boca Chica/Starbase, the rocket might be ready, though there’s no guarantee the Federal Aviation Administration is, plus it’s nearly mid-November.
The FAA hasn’t decided yet whether it will grant permission for an experimental orbital launch. In September the agency released the Draft Programmatic Environmental Assessment of the company’s proposed activities at Boca Chica. The FAA solicited public comments on the Draft PEA via two public hearings last month and comments submitted via mail and email. The comment period, which came to a close Nov. 1, genera ted significant feedback for and against the company’s plans.
The first orbital launch calls for the Super Heavy booster to separate from Starship a little over two minutes after launching from Boca Chica and splash down in the Gulf of Mexico some 20 miles offshore. Starship, powered by six Raptor engines and standing 165 feet tall , would make a “soft” powered landing in the Pacific Ocean about 60 miles north of Kauai, Hawaii, sinking inside the Navy’s Pacific Missile Range Facility, according to the FAA.
For subsequent orbital flights, SpaceX has equipped its launch/integration tower at Boca Chica with gigantic robotic arms to “catch” the Super Heavy booster as it lands. The ultimate goal is for rapid reuse of Super Heavys and Starships for multiple missions, slashing the cost of flying to space and back.
Among those expressing concerns about the Starship program is the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In a Nov. 1 letter to the FAA regarding the Draft PEA, TPWD Chief Operating Officer Clayton Wolf wrote that the agency has concerns that the Draft PEA’s analysis is insufficient in certain areas in describing and evaluating all potential impacts of SpaceX’s proposed activities.
Among the issues TPWD cites are gaps in information, including “uncertainty in the scope, scale and location of anticipated project components.” Also the Draft PEA provides conclusions but not “data from investigations, research projects or best available science” to support those conclusions. The letter notes that the FAA has determined that the Starship program is likely to affect 10 federally listed species, and includes 16 pages of specific comments and recommendations for addressing those impacts.
Likewise, an Oct. 29 letter to the FAA from The Nature Conservancy Texas expressed concern about SpaceX’s current and planned activities at Boca Chica, and questioned whether a PEA is adequate to address the full scope of direct and indirect impacts to “Boca Chica’s unique and highly productive natural environments, which have been conserved through substantial public investment and should not be compromised for a private enterprise.”
The letter, signed by TNC Texas State Director Suzanne B. Scott, strongly urges the FAA to conduct a full Environmental Impact Study “that evaluates all impacts of SpaceX’s planned activities on wildlife and on terrestrial, estu a rine and marine habitats.” An EIS would be more rigorous than the ongoing environmental assessment, and ordering one is among the FAA’s options, though it could impede SpaceX’s Starship program by months if not years.
Meanwhile, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims has ruled against Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin in the company’s lawsuit against NASA over $2.9 billion lunar lander contract the space agency awarded to SpaceX for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to put U.S. astronauts on the moon again for the first time since 1972. In April NASA awarded the $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX to develop the lunar lander — which will be based on the Starship prototypes now being built and tested at Boca Chica.
The contract prompted Blue Origin to file suit, arguing that NASA improperly allowed SpaceX to modify its bid amount. Now that the lawsuit has been resolved in SpaceX’s favor and Bezos said he won’t appeal, NASA has announced work with SpaceX would resume immediately. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, however, that time lost to legal wrangling is forcing the agency to push the lunar mission deadline back one year to 2025.