FAA delays decision on SpaceX environmental assessment for fourth time

Delay could impact crucial Starship test flights, and might even affect Nasa’s Moon mission in 2025

Jon Kelvey
Friday 29 April 2022 20:37
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The US Federal Aviation Administration has again delayed its decision on an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s plans to launch its Starship rocket from the company’s Texas base.

The FAA was scheduled to render a decision in its Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for SpaceX’s plans on Friday but announced that the decision will slip to 31 May. SpaceX needs a launch license from the FAA to complete further testing of its Starship vehicle.

“The FAA is working toward issuing the final Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) for the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy on May 31, 2022,” an FAA statement read. “The agency continues to review around 18,000 general public comments.”

It’s the fourth time the FAA has delayed its decision in the PEA, a process the administration began in November 2020. A decision was initially expected in December 2021, but the FAA pushed it first to 28 February, then to 28 March, and again to 29 April.

Significantly larger than the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft currently flying, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to use Starship for everything from delivering his company’s Starlink satellites to low Earth orbit, to building a city on Mars.

But so far, Starship has barely gotten off the ground. SpaceX began relatively low-altitude flight tests of the spacecraft around the company’s “Starbase” facility in Texas in 2019 — four of which saw the spacecraft explode on landing — but has yet to fly to space due to the lack of an FAA license.

And successful completion of the assessment is just one step toward that license.

“The completion of the PEA will not guarantee that the FAA will issue a launch license,” the FAA statement read. “SpaceX’s application must also meet FAA safety, risk and financial responsibility requirements.”

SpaceX has run afoul of the FAA before, with an unauthorized test flight of Starship in December 2020, and the continued delays could be a sign the company will have trouble getting the necessary approvals to move forward with Starship test flights at Boca Chica.

And SpaceX has already had to restart an environmental review process with another regulator after failing to provide the requested information.

On 7 March, the US Army Corps of Engineers, which manages US wetlands, withdrew SpaceX’s application to dramatically expand its facility at Boca Chica.

In a letter to SpaceX that was leaked to CNBC, the corps wrote that it had requested necessary information from the company back in May 2021, and so closed the application. SpaceX can restart the process by providing the necessary information.

It’s not clear how the current delays could affect SpaceX’s development schedule. Mr Musk has been saying a Starship test flight is imminent since at least the spring of 2021.

It’s also not clear SpaceX truly needs the FAA license to launch from Boca Chica, Texas, to move forward with the Starship program.

In a February media event largely focused on Mr Musk’s philosophy and plans to build cities on Mars, he said that if the FAA denied a launch license or required SpaceX to conduct of lengthier, more detailed Environmental Impact Statement, SpaceX could launch Starship from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where the company already lunches it’s Falcon 9 rockets.

But even Mr Musk admitted launching from Florida would require at least six to 12 months of additional time to construct the launch tower necessary for launching Starship from Cape Canaveral. And the longer any delays run, the more they could hurt beyond just SpaceX’s bottom line.

In April 2021, Nasa selected SpaceX’s proposal for a modified Starship vehicle to serve as the lunar lander for Nasa’s return to the lunar surface as part of the ArtemisMoon program in 2025.

Although Nasa did recently open a new competition for a second lunar lander design for later Moon missions after 2025, Nasa is still counting on SpaceX to deliver a Starship-based lunar landing system in just a few years’ time.

The SpaceX proposal not only uses a Starship vehicle to land on the Moon, but also multiple flights of “tanker” Starship vehicles that would fuel the lunar landing vehicle while in orbit around Earth, a complicated system that has never been tried before.

The existing Starship vehicles, meanwhile, have yet to leave the atmosphere.

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