SpaceX says it’s ready for its first-ever Starship orbital launch attempt in March.
SpaceX’s Gary Henry, senior advisor for national security space solutions, said at a panel Feb. 21 that Starship is in “good shape” following a static fire of 31 of its 33 engines on Feb. 9, according to a SpaceNews report (opens in new tab).
“We had a successful hot fire, and that was really the last box to check,” Henry said at the Space Mobility conference in Orlando held in coordination with the U.S. Space Force. “The vehicle is in good shape. The pad is in good shape.”
While Henry’s prediction confirms the March timeline SpaceX CEO Elon Musk previously set via Twitter (opens in new tab) on Feb. 4, one large obstacle stands in the way: Licensing from the Federal Aviation Administration, which governs spaceflights.
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SpaceX has announced several Starship launch dates in the past two years that have been delayed due to licensing requirements from the FAA, so a March flight is far from certain. The FAA considers factors such as environmental concerns and impacts on the local community near Starship’s launch site in Boca Chica, Texas.
Starship is SpaceX’s new spacecraft that is planned to eventually take people and cargo to the moon and Mars, as well as to serve other missions such as lofting most of the company’s newer and larger Starlink 2.0 internet satellites to orbit.
Moreover, Musk has said Starship makes Mars settlement economically feasible as the spaceship will be fully reusable. The massive spacecraft consists of a first stage called Super Heavy along with the 165-foot-tall (50 meters) upper-stage spacecraft known as Starship.
The orbital test flight calls for Booster 7, the Super Heavy prototype, to send an upper-stage Ship 24 variant from SpaceX’s Starbase in south Texas. Booster 7 will fall into the Gulf of Mexico while Ship 24 will circle Earth once before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean, near the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
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Starship has done several high-altitude flights and other tests, but it hasn’t flown for nearly two years. Its most recent excursion was with a three-engine upper-stage called SN15, which flew 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) high in May 2021 before landing vertically.
The FAA conducted a programmatic environmental assessment (PEA) that was delayed several times by regulatory complications and public interests before being completed in June 2022. But at that time, the agency told SpaceX it must take more than 75 actions before launches can be approved. SpaceX has not released its action plan for addressing those actions. Moreover, FAA assessments do take time and this makes it uncertain how close SpaceX would be in reaching a March launch date.
Days ago, the FAA proposed fining SpaceX $175,000 for failing to submit required positional information about satellites ahead of a Starlink launch in August 2022, according to the Washington Post (opens in new tab). The FAA and SpaceX have not made clear in media reports whether this problem has occurred on any other of the dozens of Starlink launches SpaceX has conducted.
Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of “Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).