The FAA is providing new clues for when SpaceX may attempt to launch it’s giant Starship rocket from Texas to Hawaii: April 17. According to the FAA Operations Plan Advisory issued today, SpaceX has its first launch window open on Monday, April 17 at 7:00 am local time, 2:00 am Hawaii time, and 8:00 am Eastern Time. The launch window is open for three hours and five minutes. Should conditions not allow lift-off on the 17th, back-up launch dates of Tuesday, April 18, Wednesday April 19, Thursday April 20, and Friday April 21 are also available with the same three hour, five minute launch window available each day.
In addition to the FAA announcement, NASA has also published a schedule showing WB-57 aircraft, a mid-wind, long-range aircraft capable of high altitude long-duration photography events, available for a mission on both April 17 and 18, presumably to document the historic lift-off of the 394 foot tall rocket.
While the FAA and NASA have published these schedules, it is still possible the launch date and time may change for Starship. Prior to flight, the FAA must issue a launch permit to allow it to happen. And even if the FAA issues that permit, other technical or legal issues could force the launch to slip.
“The FAA has not made a license determination for the SpaceX Starship Super Heavy operation, and the FAA’s Command Center planning notice should not be interpreted as an indicator that a determination to issue a license has been made or is forthcoming,” the FAA said in a statement shared with reporters.
Because this is the first orbital test of this rocket, technical issues could be discovered along the way which would delay any launch.
Some have also threatened to pursue legal action against SpaceX should the license be issued, claiming the rocket could create environmental harm at launch, splash-down, or along the way of flight, especially if something catastrophic were to occur in-flight. While the chance is remote, it is possible a court could order at least a temporary delay to launch plans depending on that legal outcome.
On Twitter, SpaceX said today, “Starship fully stacked at Starbase. Team is working towards a launch rehearsal next week followed by Starship’s first integrated flight test ~ week later pending regulatory approval.”
Lifting off is just one part of this historic test mission: the other will be to conduct a soft-landing in the waters off of Hawaii in the Pacific. After completing its orbital test, the giant rocket is due to splash down in the ocean just north of the State of Hawaii, prompting a series of marine warnings which were already in place for the historic flight.
According to the document available on the FCC website when SpaceX initially filed flight plans for this historic rocket launch, the orbital test flight will lift off from Starbase, which islocated at SpaceX’s Boca Chica complex just north of the Rio Grande River on the Gulf Coast, just above the U.S. / Mexico border. The facility is just below the popular tourist destination, South Padre Island.
At approximately 170 seconds after lift-off in Texas, the Booster Stage of the Starship rocket will separate and perform a partial return. It is due to land in the Gulf of Mexico roughly 20 miles from the shore.
While the booster returns to water, the Orbital Starship will continue to fly up and out away from Texas, flying over the Gulf of Mexico and eventually through the Florida Straits. From there, it will achieve orbit.
In the paperwork filed with the FCC, SpaceX said they intend to “collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally.” To do this, SpaceX filed with the FCC to gain their blessing to use on-board telemetry systems to radio data to ground stations from both the Orbital and Booster stages of the rocket. “This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design…and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.”
After nearly circling the globe, the Starship will splash down just north of Hawaii, roughly 90 minutes after lift-off.
SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket – collectively referred to as Starship – represent a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars and beyond. Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, capable of carrying up to 150 metric tonnes fully reusable and 250 metric tonnes expendable. Starship is roughly 394 feet tall and 29.5 feet wide, making it many times larger than the U.S. Space Shuttle and even larger than the Saturn V, the largest rocket launched from U.S. soil which used for NASA’s lunar exploration program.
Before the launch happens, the FAA must license it. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licenses all U.S. based launches and must sign-off on SpaceX’s attempts to lift-off this giant rocket before it does. A source with SpaceX said the license is expected in within the next 14 days.
The Marine Warnings are already effective today through to April 14 but can be extended to April 23 or beyond, as needed. Mariners are warned not to be in waters where either the booster or the Starship itself is expected to near the water.
Earlier this week, SpaceX founder Elon Musk said his team was targeting April 20 (4/20) as the historic launch day. In a Tweet at that time, Elon Musk said the launch is “more than days away, but hopefully not weeks away.”
In 2018, Musk unveiled his plans for this rocket, which he originally called “BFR” or “Big Falcon Rocket.” At that time, he planned to fly this new spacecraft around the Moon by 2023 and eventually use it to shuttle passengers to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Unlike the U.S. Space Shuttle or the existing SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, SpaceX’s latest rocket is designed to carry 100 passengers at a time, much like a small commercial jet does today between two Earth cities. Based on their current timeline, if this orbital test is good, SpaceX would bring astronauts to the Moon as soon as 2025.
Hawaii isn’t a stranger to being home to space travel innovations. Located on the summit of Mauna Kea, 13 independent multi-national astronomical research facilities peer into the sky to study different aspects of space. Nearby volcano Mauna Loa is also home to the HI-SEAS lab. Native Hawaiians have had a historic role in studying the stars and modern day Hawaiians continue to play an important role in making discoveries in space.
Short for Hawai’i Space Exploration Analog and Simulation, HI-SEAS is a habitat on an isolated Mars-like site on the Mauna Loa side of the saddle area on the Big Island of Hawaii at approximately 8,200 feet above sea level. In earlier years, studies were done with people who would live there for months at a time in a Mars-like environment. The research facility has been cut off from access due to the 2022 Mauna Loa volcanic eruption.
NASA has been working on a variety of initiatives in Hawaii due to its unique location, terrain, and volcanic geology for projects ranging from robotics to space materials sciences. Hawaii was also home for famed astronaut Ellison Onizuka; born in Kealakekua, Hawaii, Onizuka became the first Asian American in space and the first person of Japanese ancestry to reach Space. He flew on Space Shuttle Discovery on mission STS-51-C and served as a Mission Specialist for STS-51-L, the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger mission that exploded shortly after take-off. Many places are named in honor of Onizuka in Hawaii, including the Big Island’s Kona International Airport which is officially known as the “Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport.”
In 2019, building a mini spaceport was considered outside of Hilo; project stakeholders ultimately decided not to move forward with that project.
Last year, to improve participation and representation of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in planetary science, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researchers began a project titled Ka mālamalama o ka mahina: Building pathways for indigenous lunar science in Hawaii.
“Since the Apollo era, Hawai‘i has had an important role in lunar exploration and science,” said Emily Costello, lead investigator on the project and postdoctoral researcher in the Hawai‘i Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) at the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST). “Hawaiian basalts are often used as an analog for moon rocks and the moonwalkers of the Apollo missions were trained in Hawai‘i. However, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have not been able to adequately share that history. With this project, we hope to build bridges, provide opportunities to participate in cutting-edge lunar science, and help to remedy this disconnect.”
Early Polynesian Gods derived from or dwelt in the heavens and many of their legendary activities often took place among heavenly bodies. As an example, the demi-god Maui was known for astronomical deeds such as snaring the Sun to slow its passage across the sky. While space and the stars were important to their culture, it was also important to their livlihood. Polynesians and Hawaii’s earliest settlers were highly skilled sailors and navigators who sailed thousands of miles over open south and central Pacific waters, leveraging their knowledge of the stars, how they rise and set along points of the horizon, to efficiently sail across the Pacific thousands of years before GPS and modern navigation.
With this historic SpaceX test flight ending in Hawaii, there’s hope it may bring about more space innovation in the Aloha State even though this project with SpaceX is merely a one-off for the orbital test.
When SpaceX first announced plans to end their orbital test in the waters off of Hawaii, we reached out to Rodrigo Romo who at the time served as the Program Director for the Hilo, Hawaii-based Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES), a state-funded aerospace agency. When discussing the test flight to Hawaii, Romo said, “I think it’s outstanding. It gives Hawaii another opportunity to participate in the aerospace realm.”