If an ongoing environmental study takes longer than expected, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk said Feb. 10 that the firm is willing to move testing of its Starship next-generation launch vehicle from Texas to Florida.
Musk claimed the Federal Aviation Administration would complete an environmental evaluation and issue SpaceX a launch licence for Starship launches as soon as March, in a long-awaited and long-delayed update on Starship development at the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site.
“We don’t have a lot of information about where the FAA stands,” he said. “We’ve gotten a rough indication that a permission could come in March, but that’s all we know.”
Last autumn, the FAA said it anticipated to finish an environmental review of Starship orbital launches from Boca Chica by the end of 2021. The deadline was pushed up to Feb. 28 in late December, citing a significant number of public comments and ongoing consultations with other federal agencies.
However, one possible outcome of that study is the completion of a more thorough environmental impact statement (EIS), which was requested by certain individuals and organisations during the public comment period on the draught environmental assessment (EA) last fall. An EIS would take months, if not more than a year, to complete, delaying any launch activity from Boca Chica in the meanwhile.
“We would have to transfer our priority to Cape Kennedy,” he added, referring to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. “It would certainly set us behind for quite some time since an EIS takes a lot longer than an EA, so we would have to change our priorities to Cape Kennedy.”
SpaceX already received environmental approvals from KSC for Starship missions, and the company has resumed work on a launch site for Starship at Launch Complex 39A, which is close to the existing Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch pad.
“Our worst-case scenario is that we’d have to wait six to eight months to build up the Cape launch tower and launch from there,” he said.
It’s unclear whether the prior environmental evaluation for Starship at KSC would need to be amended to account for the vehicle’s present configuration, which has changed dramatically since the review was completed. Any Starship launches from Launch Complex 39A would have to work around Falcon launches and would necessitate NASA coordination.
However, Musk stated that SpaceX expects to use KSC as a main launch site for Starship in the long run, and that the company is establishing a factory there to produce the vehicles. SpaceX is now transforming two oil rigs into such platforms that can be moved as needed.
Musk commended Brownsville and South Texas locals for their support of the Starbase SpaceX facility in Boca Chica, but hinted that it would not be a fully operating spaceport. “It’s well suited to be our advanced R&D location,” he continued, “where we’d try out new ideas and new versions of the rocket.” Along with offshore platforms, KSC would be the “primary operational launch location.”
The event, which was planned on short notice, was billed as Musk’s first substantial update on Starship progress since a previous presentation in Boca Chica in September 2019. The backdrop for the 75-minute presentation was a fully loaded vehicle with the Starship upper stage on top of a Super Heavy booster.
If the FAA grants a licence in March, Musk claims the vehicle will be ready to fly. He stated, “We’re on target to have regulatory permission and hardware readiness around the same time.” “It’ll take a couple of months for both.” He didn’t go into depth about what further needs to be done to get the vehicle ready for launch.
During the event, there were just a few important Starship upgrades. Musk spent the most of his presentation giving a summary of the vehicle and emphasising his long-held goal of using it to make humans multiplanetary by constructing a self-sustaining settlement on Mars. A new film with a computer animation of a Starship voyage to Mars was shown during the presentation.
Musk did provide fresh information on the development of the Raptor engine that powers Starship. According to him, the first Super Heavy booster has 29 Raptor engines, with future boosters having 33. The Starship vehicle contains six Raptors now, but nine could be added later.
Raptor 2, a redesigned design that he described as a “nearly total rebuild” of the engine, is now being tested by SpaceX. The new model can generate at least 230 metric tonnes of force, up from 185 metric tonnes in the previous generation, and might eventually reach 250 metric tonnes.
He also claimed that the new version’s design is “greatly streamlined” and that it is less expensive. “Despite having substantially higher thrust and being a much easier engine to construct and a more robust engine, Raptor 2 costs around half as much as Raptor 1.”
Musk had been concerned about Raptor engine production. He warned of a “production catastrophe” in November, citing “very frankly, a disaster” concerns with engine development. He claimed that if the problems were not addressed, the company will go bankrupt.
At the Boca Chica event, Musk was much more optimistic about Raptor. “The production system has a lot of momentum,” he said, adding that by March, he expects to be able to build at least seven engines every week. “Those are insanely high figures for rocket engines.”
The work of HLS
Musk mentioned employing Starship for Starlink satellite launches as well as the dearMoon circumlunar mission proposed by Japanese businessman Yusaku Maezawa in 2018. “I believe there will be some future announcements that will excite people,” he remarked.
The most visible mission of the Starship, however, is to land NASA astronauts on the moon for the first time since 1972. Last April, NASA selected Starship for the Human Landing System (HLS) programme, which will fund the construction of a lander version of Starship that will transport astronauts to the moon’s surface and back on the Artemis 3 mission, which is set to launch no sooner than 2025.
Musk did not go into depth regarding the lander version of Starship’s development, but maintained that it should not impede with Starship’s development as a launch vehicle. He said, “I don’t think there’s really a conflict there.” “We’re going to make a lot of ships and boosters,” he says.
“Adding legs to land on the moon,” he stated, “can be done very rapidly.” “A high rate of manufacturing addresses a lot of problems.”