Yesterday, Elon Musk said Starship will be ready for its first orbital launch next month, followed by monthly liftoffs from the company’s south Texas base. It’s an ambitious timeline, but the private space company has not yet secured permission to launch the heavy rocket, as it must meet a number of outstanding regulatory requirements.
“Starship will be ready to fly next month,” Musk wrote on Twitter. “We will have a second Starship stack ready to fly in August and then monthly thereafter,” he added, implying that not only will the heavy rocket be ready for its first orbital test flight in July, but that a second ship and booster pair will also be ready for testing the following month.
Musk’s eager plan was announced shortly after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) declared that SpaceX’s proposed site expansion in Boca Chica, Texas, would have no impact on the people living in the area, clearing the way for the company to launch its fully stacked Starship rocket—save for a long, but relatively easy, to-do list of FAA-specified “actions.”
The SpaceX CEO had been waiting for the federal environmental review following months of delays (it was originally scheduled for December 2021), but the result was very much in Musk’s favor—especially considering that an in-depth Environmental Impact Statement could’ve taken years to complete and potentially put Starship on an indefinite pause. However, the FAA is still requiring SpaceX to complete about 75 environmental mitigation actions before it can begin its planned site expansion to make room for Starship. SpaceX isn’t entirely set for launch just yet and the FAA’s decision doesn’t guarantee a go-ahead for expansion on the site since the agency still has to complete its review and issue safety permits.
“The environmental review is one part of the FAA Launch Operator License application process,” the federal regulator said in an emailed statement. “SpaceX also must meet FAA safety, risk, and financial responsibility requirements before a license is issued for any launch activities.” In its reportthe FAA said its evaluation of launch permits includes a review of public safety issues (eg flying over populated areas or flights with potentially dangerous cargo), national security or foreign policy concerns, and insurance requirements, in addition to potential environmental impacts.
And then there’s the Army Corps of Engineers, which is mandated to protect natural resources and sources of drinking water. Earlier this year, the Army Corps closed SpaceX’s application to expand the Boca Chica facility citing insufficient information from the company. SpaceX is welcome re-apply, but company’s intention is not known.
Finally, there’s the public to consider and the potential for legal hangups should groups choose to appeal any of these decisions.
Aside from all of this (and that’s a bunch of stuff), the rocket’s hardware itself needs to be ready for its orbital test flight. SpaceX has conducted a number of high-altitude tests of Starship’s upper stage, demonstrating that it can launch and land. But for the orbital test flight the Starship upper stage will be stacked atop a Super Heavy Booster and launched to space, enter Earth’s orbit, perform less than a full orbit around Earth, and reenter Earth’s atmosphere. The upper stage will splash down some 62 miles (100 km) off the northwest coast of Kauai, Hawaii, while the Super Heavy Booster will splash down in the Gulf of Mexico.
For SpaceX to pull off the proposed monthly orbital tests, it will need to step up its development and production of Raptors, the engine-powered Starship. Each booster requires 33 Raptors and each upper stage will require six to nine Raptor engines.
But Musk is seemingly desperate to start launching his company’s heavy rockets, which stand at 394 feet tall (120 meters). The billionaire’s vision for Starship is that it will transport people and carry cargo to the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the solar system. Additionally, Musk recently revealed that he is depending on Starship to launch the next-generation of Starlink satellites to orbit. But the space enthusiast may have to wait a little longer, but perhaps not too much longer, before he can send his giant rocket to orbit and back.