Elon Musk went to his X platform to say the launch of his new huge rocket on a test flight from Texas to Hawaii could happen as soon as Friday. “Was just informed that approval to launch should happen in time for a Friday launch,” he wrote on Monday evening. Within the last few months, SpaceX has been waiting for the FAA to issue a launch license to launch their next generation rocket. While Musk is optimistic launch will occur soon, the FAA has provided no official comment or timing of when their license could be issued or even if it will be issued.
Once granted, SpaceX can launch their giant Starship and Super Heavy Rocket from southern Texas; if all goes well, the massive rocket will head on its first orbital journey before coming down near Hawaii just 90 minutes later. While many learnings were captured along the way, says SpaceX, the first launch attempt on April 20 ended with an explosion when the rocket failed to achieve orbit. SpaceX founder Elon Musk said on X, then Twitter, that the next launch attempt could happen in August.
“Major launchpad upgrades should be complete in about a month, then another month of rocket testing on pad, then flight 2 of Starship,” Elon Must Tweeted while re-Tweeting video of the April launch attempt on Friday.
However, the FAA has been slow to do their due diligence in issuing a launch license, which includes updating an environmental assessment of the launch environment prior to its issuance.
Space X has designed Starship to be a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, help humanity return to the Moon, and travel to Mars and beyond. The orbital flight test will bring SpaceX closer to sending humans to Moon, Mars, or beyond. With regards to the orbital flight test, SpaceX says, “success is measured by how much we can learn, which will inform and improve the probability of success in the future as SpaceX rapidly advances development of Starship.”
For this orbital test, SpaceX will attempt to nearly circle the world with Starship and not much else; for this first flight test, the team will not attempt a vertical landing of Starship or a catch of the Super Heavy booster. Such attempts will be made at future test launches.
As part of a slew of documentation released by the FAA when SpaceX’s initial license to launch Starship was issued, included in the documentation was a re-evaluation of the 2022 “Final Programmatic Environmental Assessment for the SpaceX Starship / Super Heavy Launch Vehicle Program at the Boca Chica Launch Site in Cameron County, Texas.” That document, authored by Stacey Molinich Zee, was released on April 14, 2023. This Programmatic Environmental Assessment or PEA for short details numerous specifics of the launch plans, including possible environmental impacts at the launch site around Texas and the planned splashdown site around Hawaii.
According to the updated PEA, from a height of about 75 miles, Starship would begin its passive descent back to Earth over the Pacific Ocean. During this descent, residual rocket fuel amounting to roughly 10 metric tons of Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and 4 metric tons of methane would remain with the spacecraft to the surface. The PEA says the residual fuel “represents approximately 1.1 percent of the total fill levels for the Starship main tanks.”
“Starship would impact the Pacific Ocean intact, horizontally, and at terminal velocity, and the impact would disperse settled remaining propellants and drive structural failure of the vehicle. The structural failure would immediately lead to failure of the transfer tube, which would allow the remaining LOX and methane to mix, resulting in an explosive event,” the PEA describes.
While recovery of Starship isn’t expected due to the explosive event planned, SpaceX resources will attempt to retrieve any large debris pieces from the ocean.
“Following the Starship breakup, SpaceX would have a vessel in the area of highest likelihood of debris that would identify large debris for salvage. SpaceX would use the vessel to survey the debris field for approximately of 24 to 48 hours using visual survey in the day and onboard vessel radar at night) depending on the outcome of the breakup,” the PEA says. “The initial survey area would be determined based on last known data location point received from the telemetry on the vehicle upon splashdown. Weather and ocean current data would be used to further characterize the debris field as the operation is conducted.”
During the debris recovery mission, SpaceX will coordinate with the United States Coast Guard on their endeavors.
“If debris is generated, SpaceX expects the majority of the Starship debris would sink because it is made of steel and will have sufficient mass to sink to the seafloor,” the PEA adds. Debris is expected to sink within the expected landing location which is 240 nautical miles east of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument; SpaceX says any debris is not expected to drift into the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. However, they caution that some lighter items not made of steel, such as composite overwrapped pressure vessels, may float for a short period before sinking after becoming water logged.
SpaceX also adds that though not expected and unlikely, if there is floating debris found by the vessel during the debris field survey, they would sink or recover any floating debris before it could drift into the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument by physically removing the item or puncturing the item to cause it to sink.
The PEA also evaluated potential impacts to marine life around Hawaii from such an explosive return to Earth of Starship. A consulting biologist explored marine mammals and sea turtles that could be in the splashdown zone; these creatures include assorted whale species, the Hawaiian Monk Seal, assorted turtle species, the Giant Manta Ray, and the Oceanic Whitetip Shark. Based on their assessment of marine life being “harassed” or injured as a result of this impact, they project less than 1 marine life would be impacted in this zone.
While the FAA granted SpaceX permission for the April launch, they have yet to do the same for the next one, pending analysis and insights onto the last launch attempt.
Earlier this year, environmental groups sued the FAA in federal court over the initial launch, hoping to delay or cancel upcoming launch attempts as well. The groups are arguing that the FAA failed to adequately investigate the potential harm the launch or a mishap could do to the surround environment. Ahead of the launch on April 20, the FAA issued a finding that the launch would have no significant impact on its surrounding environment. Because of that determination, the agency didn’t proceed with a more in-depth environmental assessment, which would have taken more time –which environmental groups say illustrate the FAA didn’t do it’s proper due diligence. SpaceX had filed a motion to join the FAA as a defendant in the lawsuit.
“If the Court were to rule in Plaintiffs’ favor, the FAA’s decision could be set aside, and further licensing of the Starship/Super Heavy Program could be significantly delayed, causing severe injury to SpaceX’s business,” SpaceX wrote in their filing.
It is not yet known if that litigation or the threats of other litigation will impact the timing of the next launch attempt yet.
While questions remain when SpaceX will actually try another launch attempt, the space company is still optimistic about their future. SpaceX wrote, “As we venture into new territory, we continue to appreciate all of the support and encouragement we have received from those who share our vision of a future where humanity is out exploring among the stars!”