SpaceX is edging closer to securing an updated license for its upcoming Starship launch, though an environmental review still stands in the way.
On October 31, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it had successfully concluded the safety review phase of the evaluation for the Starship/Super Heavy launch license. This review primarily focuses on aspects of the launch operations that have a direct impact on public safety.
The updated license is a prerequisite for the next integrated Starship launch. This decision comes from the FAA’s closure of the mishap investigation related to the initial Starship/Super Heavy launch in April, during which they identified 63 necessary corrective actions for SpaceX, with 27 linked explicitly to public safety concerns.
In a September 18 interview, Kelvin Coleman, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, highlighted the importance of SpaceX addressing these corrective actions tied to public safety before proceeding with their next operation. He expressed confidence that the safety review would be wrapped up by the end of October.
Nonetheless, the conclusion of the safety review does not signal the immediate issuance of the updated Starship launch license by the FAA. The agency is still diligently working on an environmental review, which includes consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding potential environmental impacts of a new water deluge system installed at the Starship launch pad in Boca Chica, Texas.
In an October 26 statement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service revealed that it had formally initiated an Endangered Species Act consultation with the FAA about the pad modifications on October 19. While they have up to 135 days to issue an amended biological opinion, they anticipate not requiring the full allotted time, although they did not specify a precise timeframe for completion.
This extended licensing process has caused frustration for SpaceX, which has been ready for its next flight test for over a month. Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s Vice President for Build and Flight Reliability, expressed this frustration during a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee on October 18. He called for a swifter review of license proposals, particularly for projects of national interest, alluding to Starship’s crucial role as a lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration campaign.
Gerstenmaier urged Congress to establish a regulatory framework consistent with the objectives and schedules of national programs like Artemis. Furthermore, he emphasized the need for agencies involved in the FAA licensing process, such as those responsible for environmental considerations, to expedite their work to align with national program schedules.