SpaceX Starship Overcomes FAA Obstacle on Path to First Orbital Test Flight

SpaceX Starship Overcomes FAA Obstacle on Path to First Orbital Test Flight

The Federal Aviation Administration has finally completed an environmental assessment of SpaceX’s plans to launch its Starship megarocket from Boca Chica, Texas, finding no impediments that would prevent the licensing of long-delayed orbital test flights, officials said on Monday.

“The FAA determined that the Proposed Action would not result in significant environmental consequences and issued a Mitigated Finding of No Significant Impact/Decision Record,” according to the executive summary of the FAA’s Programmatic Environmental Assessment, or PEA.

“If any future license or permission is issued to SpaceX to perform any aspect of the proposed action, the FAA will ensure that SpaceX implements (specified) mitigation measures as conditions for the permit.”

A SpaceX spacecraft is taken to the launch complex near Boca Chica, Texas, for testing.  / Credit: SpaceX

A SpaceX spacecraft is taken to the launch complex near Boca Chica, Texas, for testing. / Credit: SpaceX

Before a launch permit can be issued, SpaceX will have to undertake 75 measures to minimize environmental impacts and the FAA will have to carry out “public safety, national security and other reviews,” the agency said in a statement. “The license application is still pending.”

But the FAA has concluded that a more involved Environmental Impact Statement will not be necessary. If all goes well, SpaceX could proceed with a long-delayed orbital test flight of its Starship-Super Heavy rocket in the coming months.

SpaceX tweeted: “One step closer to Starship’s first orbital flight test.”

One step closer to Starship’s first orbital flight test https://t.co/MEcQ6gST6Q pic.twitter.com/jxqEsM62gc

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) June 13, 2022

The successful completion of the programmatic assessment is a huge win for SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who sees the Starship vehicle as the company’s future and a key step towards human exploration of the solar system.

But the decision dealt a blow to environmentalists and members of the public who argued that Starship’s operations will harm South Texas’ coastal environment and cause harm to wildlife and nearby communities. It remains to be seen whether any legal challenges can be mounted.

“SpaceX has shown blatant disregard for Boca Chica’s natural habitats,” the American Bird Conservancy said in a statement. “The area here is not just empty space for fuselage debris and debris.”

SpaceX has shaken up the domestic and international launch industry with its relatively low-cost, partially reusable rockets.

The company’s flagship Falcon 9 is a two-stage midrange rocket with a reusable first stage and nose cone fairing that has flown 157 times since its maiden flight in 2010 and 23 times this year alone. The rocket is used to launch civil and government satellites and Cargo Dragon capsules that transport supplies and equipment to and from the International Space Station.

The Starship-Super Heavy launch vehicle, seen here during propellant loading tests, is 400 feet tall and measures 30 feet wide.  It is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built.  SpaceX expects to launch the massive booster on its first test flight into orbit later this year.  / Credit: SpaceX

The Starship-Super Heavy launch vehicle, seen here during propellant loading tests, is 400 feet tall and measures 30 feet wide. It is the largest and most powerful rocket ever built. SpaceX expects to launch the massive booster on its first test flight into orbit later this year. / Credit: SpaceX

Falcon 9 is also used to launch the Crew Dragon spacecraft that transports US and partner agency astronauts to and from the space station, ending NASA’s post-transport reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. To date, SpaceX has launched five NASA teams to the space station and two civilian teams, one to the station and one to low Earth orbit.

In addition to the Falcon 9 single stick, SpaceX launched three more powerful Falcon Heavy rockets, using three Falcon 9s tethered as a 27-engine first stage.

But the Super Heavy and Starship rockets that SpaceX is designing and wants to launch from Boca Chica and the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are in a class of their own.

The first reusable stage – the Super Heavy – will be powered by 33 Raptor engines that burn liquid oxygen and methane fuel, generating a combined thrust of 16 million pounds, or twice the liftoff power of NASA’s Space Launch System lunar rocket. Musk tweeted a photo of the Super Heavy’s engines over the weekend.

33 Raptor rocket engines, each producing 230 metric tons of force pic.twitter.com/flQLb62MgZ

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) June 11, 2022

The reusable upper stage – the Starship – will use six to nine Raptor engines and can launch cargo, astronauts or both. SpaceX has a $2.9 billion contract to develop a version of the Starship to serve as a piloted lander, taking NASA’s first astronauts back to the lunar surface in the agency’s Artemis lunar program.

Together, the Starship rocket and Super Heavy will be 400 feet tall and measure 30 feet wide, a gigantic rocket that will surpass any space vehicle ever built.

SpaceX has launched several test flights of prototype starships from Boca Chica using up to three Raptor engines at a time to reach altitudes of up to nearly 14 kilometers. various vehicles exploded in flight, during landing or shortly after landing, but the latest from SpaceX test flight in May 2021 it was a complete success.

Artist's impression of a SpaceX spacecraft on the surface of the moon.  / Credit: NASA

Artist’s impression of a SpaceX spacecraft on the surface of the moon. / Credit: NASA

SpaceX “stacks” a Super Heavy and Starship onto a launch pad in Boca Chica, but the super rocket has yet to launch. For its initial orbital test flight, the company plans to “land” the Super Heavy in the Gulf of Mexico as the craft ascends into space, circles the planet and crashes into the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

With Monday’s discovery that an environmental impact statement is not required for Boca Chica, the FAA will presumably now be able to consider a launch permit, assuming SpaceX meets mitigation requirements.

The FAA began its environmental review of SpaceX’s plans for Boca Chica in November 2020, but the long-awaited report was delayed four times after agency officials said SpaceX made several changes to its original application. In addition, the FAA had to respond to approximately 18,000 comments from the public.

Apparently worried about a possibly negative outcome, Musk said SpaceX would consider moving all of its Starship-Super Heavy launch operations to the Kennedy Space Center, where the company already leases block 39A, a former space shuttle launch complex and Apollo.

SpaceX is building a Super Heavy platform at launch complex 39A, where Musk said the company will launch “operational” missions. But SpaceX wants to conduct test flights in Boca Chica, and the FAA review, after months of delay, has given the company a big step in that direction.

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