We try to decipher SpaceX’s ever-changing plans for Starship in Florida

SpaceX's Starship tower (left) at Launch Complex 39A dwarfs the launch pad for the Falcon 9 rocket (right).
Enlarge / SpaceX’s Starship tower (left) at Launch Complex 39A dwarfs the launch pad for the Falcon 9 rocket (right).

There are a number of ways to read the Federal Aviation Administration’s announcement that it is kicking off a new environmental review of SpaceX’s plan to launch the world’s most powerful rocket from Florida.

The FAA said on May 10 that it plans to develop an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for SpaceX’s proposal to launch spacecraft from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The FAA ordered this review after SpaceX informed the regulator of the expected launch rate of Starships and the design of the ground infrastructure needed at Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), the historic launch pad once used for Apollo and Space Shuttle Missions.

Duplicate environmental assessments

At the same time, the US Space Force is overseeing a similar EIS for SpaceX’s proposal to take over a launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, a few miles south of LC-39A. The launch pad, called Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37), is available for use after United Launch Alliance’s last Delta rocket lifted off there in April.

On the one hand, these environmental reviews often take a while and could upset Elon Musk’s goal of having Starship launch sites in Florida ready for use by the end of 2025. “A few years wouldn’t be a surprise,” said George Nield, an aerospace industry consultant and former head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Another way to look at the FAA and Space Force’s recent announcements about ongoing environmental investigations is that SpaceX appears to be finally solidifying its plans to launch Starship from Florida. These plans have changed considerably over the past five years.

The environmental reviews will culminate in a decision on whether to approve SpaceX’s proposals for Starship launches on LC-39A and SLC-37. The FAA will then go through a separate licensing process, similar to the framework used to license the first three Starship test launches from South Texas.

NASA has contracts with SpaceX worth more than $4 billion to develop a human-rated version of Starship to land astronauts on the moon during the first two Artemis moon landing flights later this decade. To do that, SpaceX must place a fuel depot in low Earth orbit to refuel the Starship’s lunar lander before it heads to the moon. It will take a number of Starship tanker flights – perhaps ten to fifteen – to fill the depot with cryogenic propellants.

To launch that many spaceships over the course of a month or two, SpaceX will have to alternate between at least two launch pads. NASA and SpaceX officials say the best way to do this is to launch spaceships from one platform in Texas and another in Florida.

Earlier this week, Ars spoke with Lisa Watson-Morgan, who manages NASA’s human-rated lunar lander program. She was at the Kennedy Space Center this week for briefings on the Starship lander and a competing lander from Blue Origin. One of the topics, she said, was the FAA’s new environmental review before Starship can launch from the LC-39A.

“I would say we’re doing everything we can to get the schedule where it needs to be, and we’re working with SpaceX to make sure that their timeline, the EIS timeline, and NASA’s are all working in parallel as much as possible. achieve our goals,” she said. “If you put it on paper as it is, it looks like there may be some sticky points, but I would say we are working through them together.”

Officially, SpaceX plans to conduct a dress rehearsal for the Starship moon landing in late 2025. This will be a full demonstration, with refueling missions, an unmanned landing of Starship on the lunar surface and then a launch from the moon, before NASA commits to putting humans on Starship for the Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for September 2026.

So you can see that schedules are already tight for the Starship moon landing demonstration when SpaceX activates launch pads in Florida late next year.

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