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

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

There are two ways to read the FAA’s announcement that it will begin a new environmental review of SpaceX’s plan to launch the world’s most powerful rocket from Florida.

The Federal Aviation Administration said on May 10 that it plans to develop an environmental impact statement (EIS) for SpaceX’s proposal to launch Starships from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The FAA ordered the review after SpaceX informed the regulatory agency about Starship’s expected launch rate and the design of the ground infrastructure needed at Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), the historic launch pad previously used for the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions. .

Dual environmental reviews

Meanwhile, the US Space Force is overseeing an electronic information system similar to SpaceX’s proposal to take over the launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, a few miles south of LC-39A. That launch pad, named Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37), became available for use after United Launch Alliance’s last Delta rocket was launched there in April.

On the one hand, these Environmental reviews often take some time It could eclipse Elon Musk’s goal of having spacecraft launch sites in Florida ready for service 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 Office of the Federal Aviation Administration. Commercial space transportation.

Another way to look at the recent FAA and Space Force announcements regarding pending environmental reviews is that SpaceX finally appears to be solidifying its plans to launch spacecraft from Florida. These plans have changed little in the past five years.

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The environmental reviews will culminate in a decision on whether to approve SpaceX’s proposals for launching Starship on LC-39A and SLC-37. The FAA will then go through a separate licensing process, similar to the framework used to authorize 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 for the first of two Artemis lunar landings later this decade. To do this, SpaceX must create a fuel depot in low Earth orbit to refuel the Starship lunar lander before heading to the Moon. It will take a series of Starship tanker flights — perhaps 10 to 15 flights — to fill the depot with cryogenic fuel.

Launching so many spacecraft over the course of a month or two would require SpaceX to rotate between at least two launch pads. NASA and SpaceX officials say the best way to do that is to launch Starships from a pad in Texas and another in Florida.

Earlier this week, Ars spoke with Lisa Watson Morgan, who runs NASA’s lunar landing program. She was at Kennedy Space Center this week for briefings on the Starship lander and a competing lander from Blue Origin. One topic was a new environmental review conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) before the spacecraft could launch from LC-39A, she said.

“I would say that we are doing everything we can to bring the schedule to where it needs to be, and we are working with SpaceX to make sure that their schedule, the EIS schedule, and NASA all run in parallel as much as possible to achieve our goals,” she said. “When you put it on paper as it is, it seems like there might be some rough spots, but I would say that we are collectively working on it.”

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Officially, SpaceX plans to conduct a lunar landing rehearsal for the spacecraft in late 2025. This will be a full demonstration, with fueling missions, an unmanned landing of the spacecraft on the lunar surface, and then a liftoff from the moon, before NASA commits to putting people on On board the spacecraft on the Artemis III mission, currently scheduled for September 2026.

So you can see that timelines are already tight for Starship’s moon landing demonstration if SpaceX activates its Florida launch pads late next year.

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